Some firefighters around the region who left or lost their jobs last year because they wouldn’t comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate are trying to come back — with varying degrees of success.
King County agencies’ decisions, however, have largely remained unchanged. Last week, for example, six Eastside Fire & Rescue firefighters, who weren’t fully vaccinated by the October 2021 deadline lost their jobs after their six-month leaves of absence ended.
The department is “saddened by the loss of some of our firefighters but also deeply respectful of their personal choices,” Chief Jeff Clark said in a statement. Eastside Fire & Rescue provides services to East King County.
Among those who left was Frank Dahlquist, a former captain with Eastside Fire & Rescue, who said he requested a religious exemption. He leads King County Firefighters United, a group he says represents about 100 firefighters in King County who lost their jobs because of the vaccine mandate.
Over the past few weeks, as city councils and other government panels resume in-person meetings, unvaccinated firefighters and their supporters are continuing to push for the first responders to return to work.
“It’s the first opportunity to really show the outpouring of support from the community,” Dahlquist said. “They can see us face-to-face and really see what they are losing.”
Most of the region’s fire and emergency personnel complied with Inslee’s order. Others sought medical or religious exemptions and were accommodated in ways to let them stay on the job. A third group left their jobs, either permanently or by taking leaves of absence.
Unvaccinated firefighters say they should be allowed back, citing the drop in reported COVID cases, updated guidance on vaccines and mask restrictions that have loosened.
COVID-19 vaccines remain safe and protect against the virus, according to health experts. Though recent variants like omicron infected people who were vaccinated, that doesn’t mean the vaccines aren’t working, King County’s health officer, Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, said in a news briefing last month. COVID patients who aren’t vaccinated are far more likely to be hospitalized than those who have been vaccinated.
Under Inslee’s order, firefighters, along with other health care workers, state workers and educational employees had to be fully vaccinated by October 2021. Employers can grant medical or religious exemptions and accommodate unvaccinated workers through measures like mask requirements or testing, though it’s up to each agency to determine whether they can be accommodated.
There are no plans to modify the policy, Jaime Smith, spokesperson for Inslee’s office, said in an email.
In Redmond, a group of firefighters said before the October deadline that they hadn’t received the vaccine and had no plans to do so. That group, which worked on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic since its beginning, was among the most vocal against the mandate. Of the fire staff unvaccinated after the deadline, one retired, two left their positions, one works in a different role and six remain on leaves of absence, according to the City of Redmond.
Many of the same firefighters and their supporters who spoke at Redmond City Council meetings leading up to the October deadline also spoke at a council meeting on Tuesday. Amanda Parnell said her husband, Tyler Parnell, who is facing termination, has struggled “physically, mentally and emotionally.”
“There are firefighters throughout King County who have also been struggling and face a similar fate,” she said at the meeting.
Meanwhile, some agencies in the Puget Sound region have brought back firefighters or say they have plans to do so.
At Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue, all firefighters in service are vaccinated, but the agency wants to find ways for 13 firefighters impacted by the mandate to return, according to spokesperson Peter Mongillo.
In Lacey, 12 first responders filed for religious exemptions and were given accommodations, according to Lacey Fire District 3 Deputy Chief Jennifer Schmidt. An EMT took a leave of absence starting Oct. 19, and returned to work in April. Those who were granted accommodations were required to wear N95 masks at all times at the station, Schmidt said, and required to eat in a separate space.
All first responders are still required to wear masks while providing care for the public, Schmidt said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Amanda Zhou contributed to this report, which also includes information from The Seattle Times archives.
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