Firefighters from Yakima and West Valley fire department

Firefighters from Yakima and West Valley fire departments meet at West Valley Fire Station 51 to discuss training and coordinating responses to fires along their shared area border Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Yakima, Wash.

Yakima Valley fire departments and the local Washington State Patrol detachment saw a few losses in their ranks following the governor’s deadline for COVID-19 vaccinations Monday.

While the Washington State Patrol reported losing five local troopers, fire departments have reported a handful of firefighters who have resigned or taken leaves of absence rather than comply with a vaccination mandate. Other firefighters have either gotten the shot, shifted to responding to only nonmedical calls, or have agreed to use additional protective gear if they go on a medical call.

Both Yakima and West Valley fire departments reported they have not lost any of their firefighters, although some have filed for exemptions while others who refused to get vaccinated were taken off medical calls and will only respond to fires.

The Selah Fire Department chief said the vaccine mandate is affecting the mostly volunteer crew, with five firefighters resigning and four taking a leave of absence rather than get the vaccine. Chief Jim Lange said his worry is for the volunteers who will have to pick up the slack.

“We’re a volunteer-based department and rely heavily on our volunteers,” Lange said. “Our budget does not support hiring (additional) full-time staff.”

Yakima-area law enforcement

The Washington State Patrol detachment headquartered at Union Gap lost five troopers who refused to get vaccinated. One trooper recorded a signoff blasting Gov. Jay Inslee, which went viral on social media.

In August, Inslee ordered all state employees to get a coronavirus vaccination by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs. Firefighters who also serve as emergency medical technicians were also required to get vaccinated.

At the State Patrol, 127 people, including 67 troopers, six sergeants and one captain, were “separated from employment” over the vaccination, according to the State Patrol. WSP has 2,200 employees statewide split between commissioned and noncommissioned personnel.

In the State Patrol’s District 3, which runs from Yakima County to Walla Walla, one sergeant and four troopers left rather than get vaccinated, Lt. Kiley Conaway said.

Among them was Trooper Robert LaMay, a 22-year veteran of the department. In his final radio signoff, a tradition among retiring law enforcement officers, LaMay said he was “being asked to leave because I was dirty.” Along with thanking his fellow officers and the people in the Yakima Valley, LaMay finished his broadcast by saying “Jay Inslee can kiss my (posterior)” and doing a mic drop. His story was picked up by national media outlets, including Fox and The Washington Post.

Conaway said the State Patrol’s detachment here will continue to respond to all service calls, even if it means rearranging a few resources.

The Yakima Police Department was not included in the statewide mandate because the police department does not provide medical assistance, city spokesperson Randy Beehler said.

He said the city is not considering a vaccination mandate for its employees, but is following all state and federal mandates. The city has about 750 employees.

Yakima County sheriff’s spokesperson Casey Schilperoort said the county does not have a mandate for its employees to be vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the federal government is in the process of finalizing a rule requiring all private sector employers with 100 or more employees to require workers to be vaccinated or submit a negative COVID test weekly.

Fire departments

Some Yakima County fire departments reported not losing any personnel, while some saw firefighters resign, retire or take leaves of absence.

All Yakima Fire Department employees had to be fully vaccinated by the Monday deadline. Beehler said all fire department personnel have submitted the required vaccination documentation or have been granted an exemption by the city’s human resources department.

Beehler said there are about 100 employees in the fire department, with about 80 of those being firefighters, who are also certified EMTs.

Joel Byam, deputy chief at Yakima County Fire District 5, said it came down to the wire, but most of the 160 volunteers in the department either provided proof of vaccination or received an exemption.

“We had some very big concerns as we got closer (to the deadline),” Byam said. “As we entered the last week and a half, about half had contacted us.”

Byam said one firefighter, a 42-year veteran, chose to retire, while between seven and eight chose to respond to fire calls only while a half-dozen chose to take a six-month leave of absence, at which time the department will see where the need for vaccination stands, Byam said.

He does not anticipate any service changes at the district, which covers most of the Lower Valley, as a result. He said those taking leave came from stations with large crew complements.

Byam the departmetn is waiting to see if they will be required under federal mandates to weekly test unvaccinated firefighters.

When Inslee issued the mandate, Lange said Selah’s department had 49 volunteer firefighters who responded to medical calls. As of Wednesday, he’s down to 35, with seven who are a day or two late getting their information, he said.

“The greater impact of this is the people themselves that are not fully vaccinated yet or choosing not to be vaccinated,” Lange said. He said medical calls amount to 80% of the department’s calls, and that two of his top responders are among the unvaccinated.

“Most of the pushback was on how the mandate was brought forward,” Lange said. “Most of the members felt it was a personal choice and should not be forced.” He said they had already been treating people with COVID for a year and a half.

In addition to the resignations and leaves of absence, Lange said four firefighter-EMTs have chosen to respond only to fire calls, while two were granted exemptions.

Those who received exemptions are required to wear full personal protective gear — gowns, booties, gloves, masks and eye protection — on medical calls and to wear an N95 mask at any department function, as well as be tested weekly.

West Valley Fire Chief Nathan Craig said he has not lost any of his people. He said the department’s full-time staff has all been vaccinated, and that 22 volunteer firefighters asked for exemptions, and they were granted accommodations, such as wearing full protective gear on medical calls.

But Craig is concerned what could happen to smaller departments across the state because of the mandate. He said firefighters in those departments might take jobs at larger departments to fill mandate-created vacancies.

“You’re looking at larger agencies, like Spokane and Seattle, and they would take lateral transfers,” Craig said. “Those may come from volunteer and from smaller agencies for better pay.”

And Craig said replacing those who leave with volunteers could be difficult.

“We can’t grab someone else,” Craig said, as most of those who can volunteer are already doing it.

This story was updated to correct the status of testing for unvaccinated firefighters in Yakima County Fire District 5.

(3) comments

casey

This story seems to downplay the surprising news that the Yakima PD is not covered by the mask mandate. How is it possible that Seattle and many other police agencies are covered and the YPD does not because it doesn't provide "medical assistance"? That's just not credible. This news needs further explanation in a separate story.

scott

#FJI

jobaaf

Isn’t it the job and oath of police, firefighters, EMTs, etc to serve and protect? Or at least that’s what I thought. Protecting those these professionals have close contact with should require protecting from an airborne, deadly virus. Stop being so selfish and get vaccinated!

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