Fire department says loss of firefighters due to vaccination status won’t compromise ability to respond
Salt Spring Fire Chief Jamie Holmes says fire-rescue operations won’t be compromised even if the department loses the ability to call on 10 per cent of its firefighters when a mandatory vaccination policy takes effect at the end of this month.
The decision by the Salt Spring Island Fire Protection District (SSIFPD) board to mandate vaccination for all working firefighters is seeing ongoing opposition in the form of letters to the board and a protest Monday afternoon outside the Ganges fire hall. On Monday the board reiterated that the policy requiring all high-risk staff to provide proof of vaccination by Feb. 28 or face leave without pay will stand.
A Monday news release from the SSIFPD confirmed that implementing the policy “will not compromise the operational integrity and emergency preparedness” of the fire department. At Monday’s board meeting, Holmes noted that while the department doesn’t know exact numbers of staff members who are unvaccinated, it is in the ballpark of 10 per cent of the department. Even with 10 per cent fewer firefighters, Holmes noted that “as far as operations go, we should still be able to respond the way that we have to this point.”
“So we can assure the community that there will be no operational compromises that we’ve made?” board chair Rollie Cook asked, to which Holmes replied in the affirmative.
Holmes noted firefighters do not have to disclose their vaccination status.
“Members still have the rights. If they don’t want their vaccination status known then they don’t have to disclose, but then that would preclude them from working in the building,” he explained.
People demonstrated outside the Ganges Fire Hall against the board-imposed policy Monday afternoon, carrying signs with messages that included “Don’t let SSI burn,” “Keep all our firefighters employed, injected or not,” and “Free to choose.” The board also received a further 10 letters of opposition to the vaccination policy, yet no member of the public chose to speak during the town hall session of Monday’s meeting.
“Shortages among firefighters would put all the community at risk,” wrote Carol Ennis, reflecting fears by several opposed that the emergency response capacity of the department would be hampered. “Additionally, firefighters fired or put on unpaid leave would clearly be negatively impacted, a terrible hardship at this time for valued members of our community,” she added.
“I am concerned that some of your colleagues will be coerced into accepting an injection,” wrote Shelagh Dodd, echoing concerns shared by many opposed to the policy about the efficacy, possible side effects and unknown long-term consequences of vaccines.
Irene Lundy recounted the effects of mandatory vaccination policies on the local long-term care sector as a cautionary tale for the fire service.
“We have lost a huge amount of dedicated, educated members because of this mandate. We are dangerously depleted and exhausted,” she wrote. “Trust your members . . . they have been trained well with [PPE] and have been going to medical calls during this whole thing . . . They didn’t run, they tended to the call, respect that.”
Those letters are in addition to 42 letters and a petition with 101 signatures received by the fire board after the policy was made public last month. Thirteen people spoke at a Jan. 17 meeting in opposition to the policy, including paid-on-call firefighters and a member of the local RCMP detachment.
On Monday the fire department reiterated that the policy, approved in December 2021, aligns “vaccination requirements with other provincial emergency response organizations.”
“We’ve taken the advice that Bonnie Henry has asked us to follow,” chair Cook told the Driftwood. “So I think for any change on our part we will require senior levels of government to give us their advice.”
While there is currently no mandatory vaccination order covering firefighters specifically, provincial health officer Henry announced last week that health-care workers will have to be vaccinated by March 24. The order covers 29 regulated health professionals, including audiologists, dieticians, massage therapists, pharmacists, physicians and surgeons and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. This mandate follows requirements imposed in the fall for workers in long-term care and later in all health-care settings. Salt Spring’s firefighters attend a variety of calls, which include medical, motor vehicle and other incidents where medical help may be required. In January, 15 of the department’s 33 calls were categorized as medical.
A total of 85 per cent of B.C. residents aged five and older have gotten two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, on the Southern Gulf Islands this figure is 82 per cent.
“If you’re in a situation where you have four people in a vehicle and one of them is not vaccinated, they present a risk . . . They go into somebody’s home unvaccinated and if they’re expected to perform, for example, CPR, that would be a risk,” Cook explained. “So there’s a balance between individual rights and collective responsibility, and in an emergency service I think collective responsibility is a very important factor.”
Several cities and regional districts across the province have implemented mandatory vaccination policies affecting career, paid-on-call and volunteer firefighters. In Vancouver, after mediation by the B.C. Labour Relations Board, firefighters who are unvaccinated can keep working provided they complete a COVID test at their own expense and share the results. In the City of Richmond, which has 97.8 per cent of employees complying with a mandatory vaccination policy, six of nine firefighters placed on leave without pay are having their cases heard by a labour arbitrator backed by two unions.
Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue’s mandatory vaccination policy implementation comes amid loosening of gathering restrictions in indoor spaces this week, yet wearing masks inside public spaces and having a vaccination passport to access some indoor activities are still required.