13 unvaccinated firefighters are cleared to return to work

Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue is allowing them to return, but they must be tested daily.

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MONROE — Thirteen firefighters who have been out of a job for six months because they did not comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate may soon be back at work.

Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to clear a path for them to return to duty.

The district serves about 181,000 residents in Lake Stevens, Monroe and adjacent unincorporated areas of southeast Snohomish County.

About 92% of the district’s 170 firefighters are fully vaccinated. The 13 who declined to get vaccinated have been on leave — paid and unpaid — since October.

For weeks, the firefighters and their supporters have been making their case to the board as to why they should return. Several dozen people at Thursday’s meeting stood up and clapped after the vote.

The district will now review the accommodations it can grant to the 13 employees who have “a disability or sincerely held religious belief that prevent them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccination,” according to an April 20 letter to commissioners from Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien.

The 13 had previously obtained exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine but did not receive accommodations to work.

“Our goal is to welcome them back with open arms,” O’Brien said. “We care about you. You’re a very important part of our team and want to get you back to work as soon as possible.”

It was always the district’s intention to bring the firefighters back, O’Brien told The Daily Herald.

“We saw a change in the landscape of COVID-19, and the district sees we are able to safely accommodate firefighters on a case-by-case basis to have them come back to duty,” said O’Brien, who is fully vaccinated. “It’s a different time than it was last winter or last fall.”

About 74% of Snohomish County residents 5 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the state’s COVID-19 data dashboard. After a steep decline, COVID-19 cases increased in April, though the rate of hospitalizations has remained flat, state Department of Health officials said in a briefing last week.

O’Brien said there’s another reason he supports the 13 firefighters being reinstated: The group is relatively small. As many as 40 — nearly a quarter of the force — initially sought exemptions when the mandate was first announced, he said. Since then, most have gotten vaccinated.

All firefighters, regardless of vaccination status, are required to test daily and wear masks, O’Brien said.

Not all districts have granted accommodations. Last week in King County, Eastside Fire and Rescue fired six firefighters for not complying with the state’s mandate.

O’Brien said Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue analyzed the risks and benefits of bringing back the 13.

“Our mission is absolutely about saving lives and protecting lives,” he said. “It’s a balance. We want to make sure all firefighters and the public are safe. We want to make sure we have our staff so we can go on 9/11 calls. We need those firefighters.”

David Peterson (Jacqueline Allison / The Daily Herald)

David Peterson (Jacqueline Allison / The Daily Herald)

David Peterson is one who may soon return to work. He has been a firefighter at Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue for 12 years. He said not working has been a financial hardship on his family and “a devastating blow to serving the public.”

“That’s been the main goal from the very beginning — what can I do to help other people?” Peterson said. He cited religious and medical objections to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Health officials maintain COVID-19 vaccines are safe and protect against severe illness and hospitalization.

Another firefighter who may return is Evan Merritt, who has been with the district for six years. He said he declined a vaccine over religious and personal beliefs.

Merritt said he has been on unpaid leave since November after running out of paid time off. He has an infant son along with two other young sons.

Evan Merritt (Jacqueline Allison / The Daily Herald)

Evan Merritt (Jacqueline Allison / The Daily Herald)

He said the past six months have been “super frustrating” as he waited to hear what would happen.

“That’s what we were called to do — to be able to help and not be powerless,” he said.

Merritt said he most looks forward to working again with “all the brothers and sisters we work with. And to be able to serve the community.”

Other fire departments in Snohomish County have also brought back unvaccinated firefighters. Marysville Fire District spokesperson Christie Veley said four firefighters returned to work in early February after receiving accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But other districts have not had that issue.

In Fire District 4, which serves the Snohomish area, 100% of firefighters got vaccinated, Fire Chief Don Waller said.

“I’m extremely proud,” he said. “The best thing is it has allowed us to work through the pandemic with everyone being on the same page.”

Jacqueline Allison: 425-339-3434; jacqueline.allison@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @jacq_allison.

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