Marysville firefighters Chris Burnette (left) and Chris Lytle were part of the crew vaccinating people at Arlington Municipal Airport in March. The Marysville Fire District was part of the Snohomish County Vaccine Taskforce. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Marysville firefighters Chris Burnette (left) and Chris Lytle were part of the crew vaccinating people at Arlington Municipal Airport in March. The Marysville Fire District was part of the Snohomish County Vaccine Taskforce. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Snohomish County fire unions rail against vaccine mandate

Local departments are far from 100% vaccinated. Unions claim the mandate will thin the ranks.

SNOHOMISH — Fire departments across Snohomish County worry they could lose responders who haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19, in the wake of a state mandate requiring it.

Vaccination rates vary across the county. Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue, with 260 emergency responders covering 110,000 residents in east and central county, was 58% vaccinated Wednesday. Mukilteo Fire Department’s 27 staffers were at 76%. Unionized firefighters in Marysville were at about 70%, union president Dean Shelton said Friday.

Gov. Jay Inslee mandated earlier this month that state workers, educational employees and health care providers be fully vaccinated against the virus by Oct. 18, as the more infectious delta variant has strained the local hospital system and caused a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.

“Health care providers” includes EMTs, firefighters and paramedics.

Across the state, departments fear an exodus of firefighters over the requirement.

“You’d think it would be a huge sacrifice to give up what you think is going to be your life’s work” over one vaccine, said Fire District 5 Chief Merlin Halverson, who serves the Sultan area.

Some local groups claim it could affect emergency responses. South County union firefighters from IAFF Local 1828 wrote a letter to the governor Tuesday urging alternatives to mandatory vaccinations, like weekly testing, masking and social distancing. They write that while 80% of members are fully vaccinated, they still stand to lose 60 firefighters in an already strained workforce.

The union writes it is not against vaccines, “however we are against mandatory vaccinations that strip away our members’ right to choose and would also lead to them being terminated from a career they have worked hard for and served selflessly to our communities, even during this pandemic.”

Firefighters have been on the frontlines of the pandemic, responding to urgent calls and staffing mass vaccination sites.

Paul Gagnon, president of IAFF Local 46 for Everett firefighters, said his union disagrees with the governor’s requirement. Members should be able to choose to not get vaccinated without worrying about losing their career, he added.

And IAFF Local 2781, which represents firefighters in south and east county cities like Monroe, Sultan and Mill Creek, wrote its own letter to the governor Wednesday saying the mandate “could result in a loss of essential workers.” The union said it is seeing an increase in cases of both its vaccinated and unvaccinated members.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office, Mike Faulk, said in an email the mandate won’t be changing. Officials considered an option letting workers get frequently tested for the virus, instead of getting vaccinated. Faulk said, however, that alternative was determined to be “infeasible and ineffective.” One estimate put the price tag for regular testing at $66 million annually across all state agencies.

Faulk also wrote the emergency response sector faces a different staffing conundrum if workers aren’t vaccinated: Responders are missing shifts in “incredibly high numbers” due to exposures to the virus and infections.

In a statement, the Snohomish County Fire Chiefs Association said they were working to implement the governor’s order.

Don Waller, who has been in the firefighting field since he was 16, holds a master’s degree in health policy and administration. As the chief at Fire District 4 in Snohomish, Waller has used his medical background to lay out the facts about the COVID-19 vaccine to his crews. He said that helped get his 40 full-time operational staffers to 92% vaccinated.

“I don’t think this is any different, with the fire service, than all of our society in America right now trying to determine that risk-benefit analysis between individual rights and public health,” Waller said Thursday.

Just over 66% of the county’s residents 16 and older were fully vaccinated as of this week, according to the state Department of Health. More than 72% had gotten at least one dose.

Kevin O’Brien, chief of Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue, said in an email his department is prepared to comply with the governor’s mandate. Despite a vaccination rate below 60%, the chief doesn’t expect any disruptions to service. While concerned about the impact, O’Brien said, “I can assure you that when a citizen calls 911, our excellent firefighters will be there to help 24/7 365.”

The department has been working to up its vaccination levels. For example, on Tuesday, it offered vaccines at its station in Clearview, O’Brien said. He added they will continue to offer those opportunities. If employees get the vaccine while off-duty, they get two hours worth of overtime pay.

Chris Alexander, the Mukilteo Fire Department’s chief and president of the county fire chiefs association, said Wednesday his 27-member staff could lose two to four responders because of the requirement. In that case, they’d have to pay additional overtime to the remaining firefighters to fill the gaps. Alexander, like many of the other fire leaders interviewed for this article, is vaccinated.

“I’m sad that it had to come down to a mandate,” he said. “I look at this as this is the biggest disaster that everyone in the health care profession has been asked to respond to.”

Part of that response, Alexander said, is wearing PPE; part is going and treating patients infected with the virus; and part is protecting the community by getting vaccinations.

“Some people have chosen not to respond with all three of those,” he said, “and I feel that’s a sad reflection on our profession.”

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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