The South King Fire & Rescue Board of Commissioners’ new policy prohibits unvaccinated firefighters from working with patients, despite opposition from dozens of the fire department’s members who are against the governor-issued vaccination mandate.
At a special meeting on Aug. 27, more than 40 South King Fire employees and firefighters attended the commissioners meeting both virtually and in-person. South King Fire serves the Federal Way and Des Moines areas.
“If you don’t get the vaccine, you’re not going to deliver patient care. You’re not going to expose the citizens, that we’re supposed to be protecting, to the virus,” said Vice Chair Mark Thompson after the meeting adjourned.
Unvaccinated firefighters of the department will no longer provide care face-to-face with community members after Oct. 18.
“This ranges from assisting people who have fallen and are unable to get back up on their own to those who are suffering a cardiac arrest and need CPR,” said Capt. Brad Chaney of SKFR, adding that about 80% of the department’s calls for service require some level of patient care.
On Aug. 20, Gov. Jay Inslee mandated vaccines for all healthcare providers — which includes firefighters and other groups — by Oct. 18. Otherwise, unvaccinated individuals could face job termination.
About 74% of South King Fire’s uniformed members are vaccinated, according to Assistant Chief Gordon Goodsell.
The board made two motions Aug. 27, both expressing their support of members and siding against union members’ requests to speak in opposition to Inslee’s mandate.
Commissioners instructed Fire Chief Vic Pennington to write a letter to the governor explaining the concerns of the district and its employees regarding the mandate.
In a second motion, the board’s new policy states members who are not vaccinated will not be allowed any accommodations or exemptions to deliver patient care.
“Hopefully employees will see the light and get vaccinated,” Thompson said.
For a firefighter to be considered fully vaccinated by the October date, the upcoming first dose deadline for Moderna is Sept. 6, and the deadline for the Pfizer vaccine is Sept. 13. The deadline for a member to receive a Johnson & Johnson vaccine is Oct. 4.
On Aug. 23, Local 2024 — the union representing South King Fire firefighters — signed a letter with 10 other Washington firefighter unions, including Tacoma, Burien and Gig Harbor, among others. The letter, addressed to Inslee, is written in solidarity to “defend our members’ freedom of medical choice to be vaccinated or not.”
“The decision regarding the vaccine is complex and personal; we believe our members should retain the ability to make their own decisions on personal health matters,” the letter reads. “You placed your trust in frontline workers at the beginning of the pandemic, and we ask that you continue to do so.”
The unions suggest options other than Inslee’s planned “vaccinate or terminate” approach, such as mandatory masking and mandatory testing. If Inslee does not change the mandate in place, many fire departments could face staffing shortages in mid-October.
“We’ll have to figure out ‘what do we do?” said board chairman Bill Gates about the possible termination of about 40 unvaccinated South King Fire firefighters. “We still have to provide service to the community … we’ll get to everybody, but maybe not as fast as it used to be.”
“Because when 911 is called, we are obligated to respond,” said board member Bill Fuller. “How we respond would be the next question.”
After the meeting, some union members in attendance said they felt disrespected and blindsided by the board’s new policy.
First responders of the department, and statewide, have faced an unbelievable 18 to 20 months, serving with professionalism and excellence throughout an unknown public health disaster, said SKFR Lt. Chad Snyder.
“Now we just got told … the work that we did, not only can we not be trusted to continue to do it, but we’re not even worthy of doing that. That’s unbelievably disrespectful,” Snyder said.
The process of hiring, going through fire academy and undergoing in-house training takes more than eight months, followed by another year of probation and continual training of firefighting fundamentals, he said.
“You can’t replace that. That experience is out the door,” Snyder said about firefighters being terminated.
“They [the board] just put a statement out in this motion that just completely slaps us in our face … It’s the community that’s going to hurt because of this,” he added. “As an elected board, they just failed the community.”
Local 2024 President Ryan Herrera said it’s important to note the union is not against vaccines, but is against the loss of personal freedom to make medical decisions.
“As a union, we oppose the mandate — we do not oppose the vaccine,” he said. “Terminating these employees when we need them most is not the best approach.”
Battalion Chief Eric Suckoll was one of nearly 20 public speakers at the special meeting — all of whom spoke in support of their fellow union members and against the mandate.
“The men and women that fought for freedom of our country and gave their lives, now it’s going to be the men and women who gave their livelihoods for freedoms,” Suckoll said.
Lt. Randy White urged people to get involved, attend the fire commissioner meetings virtually or in-person, and be in the know about what decisions may affect the areas they live.
“Support or against, whatever. Just get involved,” White said.