Unvaccinated Wash. firefighters will no longer be able to respond to medical calls

The vaccine requirement applies to salaried and volunteer responders in Skagit County fire districts


Kera Wanielista
Skagit Valley Herald, Mount Vernon, Wash.

SKAGIT, Wash. — At least 550 firefighters in Skagit County, many of whom are also emergency medical personnel, are subject to Gov. Jay Inslee's Aug. 9 proclamation that all healthcare workers be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18 unless they receive an exemption under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Without providing proof of vaccination, such personnel will not be allowed to work in a healthcare setting, the proclamation states.

Firefighters in Skagit County, Washington, who remain unvaccinated would be allowed to respond only to fire calls and not to medical aid calls.
Firefighters in Skagit County, Washington, who remain unvaccinated would be allowed to respond only to fire calls and not to medical aid calls. (Skagit County Fire)

The proclamation applies not only to credentialed staff, such as emergency medical responders, emergency medical technicians and paramedics, but also to volunteers — such as those who work in Skagit County fire districts.

Countywide, that may leave some fire departments struggling with staffing issues.

"There's always a potential that we could have any number of people who choose not to be vaccinated," said Josh Pelonio, director of Emergency Medical Services in Skagit County. "We could have a workforce issue in our EMS system."

Pelonio said his department oversees the credentials of 378 emergency medical responders, technicians and paramedics. He estimates there are at least another 200 firefighters and first responders serving in volunteer-based departments throughout the county.

While there is still time for staff to get vaccinated, Sedro-Woolley Fire Chief Frank Wagner is worried about what the governor's proclamation may mean for his department.

"We're kind of up in limbo right now," he said. "There's a lot of 'what ifs' and fears of how we're going to provide the services we've been providing for the past 100-plus years."

Of 48 career and volunteer firefighters, the Sedro-Woolley Fire Department is still waiting to verify the vaccination status of 17 people, Wagner said.

"The concern is, are we going to have enough folks to respond?" he said.

The Mount Vernon Fire Department, which is made up completely of career firefighters, is waiting to verify the vaccination status of nine of its 48 firefighter/EMTs, Chief Bryan Brice said.

While Brice said he wasn't sure what would happen to those who chose not to get vaccinated, he said being able to serve as an EMT is a requirement of working at the department.

Those who remain unvaccinated would be allowed to respond only to fire calls and not to medical aid calls, he said.

"That would be a hardship on the system," Brice said. "At the end of the day, we're following through on the proclamation."

With three firefighter/EMTs stationed at each of the city's three fire stations during each shift, losing nine would amount to losing one entire shift citywide, Brice said.

While it would be a temporary hardship, the department would be able to overcome it, he said.

"It would be impactful," he said. "However, we would be able to manage that by getting creative with our staffing while we started the hiring process."

In volunteer-based departments, where recruiting and retaining firefighters is already a struggle, the loss of staff may leave some struggling, said Fire District 14 Chief Dave Skrinde.

"It's a challenge for volunteer departments," Skrinde said. "This is just another hit to us."

At least two of his volunteers are likely not to continue serving, he said.

"It's really unfortunate," Skrinde said. "These are community members. They're tied to the community."

While there may be struggles in the short term, Pelonio said redundancy is built into the EMS system and departments have enough mutual and automatic aid agreements with each other to withstand the strain.

"My gut instinct is I'm confident in the system we have set up ... to meet the basic needs of the community," Pelonio said. "There's always a plan for who comes in next to fill that need."

His department has been supportive of the vaccine since it became available to first responders in the first tier of eligibility, he said.

The International Association of Firefighters and the National Association of Fire Chiefs have also come out in favor of getting vaccinated, said Brice.

"Is it good for everyone to be vaccinated? The answer is yes," Brice said. "The vaccine is a known method to control the spread of COVID-19, and we should do whatever is possible to protect the public and the employees."

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(c)2021 the Skagit Valley Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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