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Pierce County worries about firefighter exodus because of vaccine mandate

Firefighters wait under power lines for a helicopter to make a water drop on Sept. 9, 2020, on a hotspot of a wildfire burning in Bonney Lake.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press file
Firefighters wait under power lines for a helicopter to make a water drop on Sept. 9, 2020, on a hotspot of a wildfire burning in Bonney Lake.

Fire chiefs and union leaders in Pierce County say about 30 percent of their departments or membership have yet to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and they worry that a vaccinate mandate will prompt people to quit.

The News Tribune reports some firefighters have told coworkers they are looking at other jobs, leaving the state or retiring early.

“We’re going to be forced to decide whether to take this vaccine or whether to seek alternatives that could potentially be outside of this job,” Pierce County Professional Firefighters President Aaron James said. “It’s a disgrace for our members as this has been their livelihood and their career.”

Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all state employees, educational employees, and health care workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus by Oct. 18 or face termination. Firefighters have EMT and paramedic training and are therefore considered health care workers.

James is the union president of Pierce County Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 726. He pointed out that between increased COVID-19 calls and wildfires, firefighters have already had a busy year and a half.

“To take the governor’s proclamation or mandate would really devastate our workforce even further,” he said.

Bryan Copeland, the president of West Pierce Fire Fighters IAFF Local 1488, said the potential of losing any of the firefighters in his department hurts all of them.

West Pierce Fire & Rescue’s Chief Jim Sharp has estimated that about 30 percent of the 163 members are currently not vaccinated.

James, who represents 430 firefighters in Graham, Central Pierce, South Pierce and Orting, also estimated that 30 percent of his membership have not been vaccinated.

“If 30 percent of our workforce is impacted by this, that definitely affects 100 percent of our workforce,” Copeland said. “Even if we lose one person, it’s definitely an impact.”

Inslee’s Deputy Communications Director Mike Faulk said that ensuring staffing continuity is critical, but COVID-19 is jeopardizing that. Washington is breaking COVID-19 case counts with the Delta variant rapidly spreading across the state.

The union presidents wanted to see an alternative to the vaccine, like frequent testing and mask-wearing.

The governor’s office said vaccines are the safest and most effective tool for workers and communities to be protected.

“We deeply considered requests for a test-out option, listened to stakeholders, engaged local leaders and ultimately determined it is infeasible and ineffective to address the crisis at hand,” Faulk said.

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