Skagit Valley Herald, Mount Vernon, Washington.
SKAGIT, Wash .– At least 550 Skagit County firefighters, many of whom are also emergency medical personnel, are subject to Gov. Jay Inslee’s August 9 proclamation that all healthcare workers should be fully immunized against the COVID-19 by Oct. 18, unless they qualify for an exemption under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Without providing proof of vaccination, such staff will not be allowed to work in a health facility, the proclamation said.
The proclamation applies not only to certified personnel, such as emergency medical responders, emergency medical technicians and paramedics, but also to volunteers, such as those who work in fire districts in County of Skagit.
Across the county, this can leave some fire departments struggling with staffing issues.
“There is always the possibility that we have a number of people who choose not to get the vaccine,” said Josh Pelonio, director of emergency medical services for Skagit County. “We might have a manpower problem 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 200 other firefighters and first responders serving in volunteer services throughout the county.
While there is still time for staff to get vaccinated, Sedro-Woolley Fire Chief Frank Wagner is concerned about what the governor’s proclamation may mean for his department.
“We’re a bit in limbo right now,” he said. “There are a lot of ‘what ifs and fears about how we are going to deliver the services that we have been providing for over 100 years.”
Of 48 volunteer and career firefighters, the Sedro-Woolley Fire Department is still waiting to verify the immunization status of 17 people, Wagner said.
“The problem is, are we going to have enough people to respond? ” he said.
The Mount Vernon Fire Department, which is made up entirely of career firefighters, is waiting to check the immunization status of nine of its 48 firefighters / paramedics, Chief Bryan Brice said.
Although Brice said he was not sure what would happen to those who chose not to be vaccinated, he said being able to serve as an ambulance driver was a requirement for working in the department.
Those who were not vaccinated would be allowed to respond only to fire calls and not calls for medical help, he said.
“It would be a strain on the system,” said Brice. “At the end of the day, we follow the proclamation.”
With three firefighters / paramedics stationed at each of the city’s three fire stations during each shift, losing nine would be equivalent to losing an entire shift citywide, Brice said.
Even if it would be a temporary difficulty, the ministry would be able to overcome it, he said.
“It would be impactful,” he said. “However, we would be able to manage this by being creative with our staff as we begin the hiring process.”
In volunteer services, where recruiting and retaining firefighters is already difficult, the loss of staff can leave some struggling, said Dave Skrinde, Fire District Chief 14.
“It’s a challenge for volunteer services,” Skrinde said. “It’s just another hit for us.”
At least two of his volunteers are unlikely to continue serving, he said.
“It’s really unfortunate,” Skrinde said. “They are members of the community. They are linked to the community.”
While there may be short-term difficulties, Pelonio said redundancy is built into the EMS system and departments have enough mutual and automatic aid agreements between them to withstand the pressure.
“My instinct is that I am confident in the system that we have put in place (…) to meet the basic needs of the community,” Pelonio said. “There is always a plan for who comes next to fill that need.”
His department has supported the vaccine since it became available to first responders at the first level of eligibility, he said.
The International Association of Fire Fighters and the National Association of Fire Chiefs have also spoken out in favor of vaccination, Brice said.
“Is it good for everyone to get vaccinated? The answer is yes,” said Brice. “The vaccine is a known method of controlling the spread of COVID-19, and we must do everything possible to protect the public and employees. “
(c) 2021 the Skagit Valley Herald