One by one, firefighters at a recent Redmond City Council meeting came to the microphone to detail their contributions to the Eastside community. Then they asked to not be fired.
From the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, they had been on the front lines. They recalled responding to Life Care Center of Kirkland, site of the first known U.S. outbreak. Others talked about calming scared residents with suspected COVID-19 symptoms as they took them to hospitals. A few spoke of accumulating hundreds of hours of overtime at coronavirus testing drive-thrus or in COVID-19 mitigation while fighting wildfires in other states.
But even as they have responded to the many traumas COVID-19 has wrought, their fight against the illness won’t include a getting a vaccine. Under Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate, that means they’ll lose their jobs after Oct. 18. More than a dozen firefighters asked for vaccine exemptions on religious grounds and all have been denied.
Similar scenes of resistance have played out across the state in meetings and in fire stations ahead of the deadline for thousands of state employees and those in health care settings to be fully vaccinated against the virus. This includes firefighters, paramedics and EMTs.
The city of Redmond didn’t provide data on vaccination rates, but an estimated 20 Redmond firefighters — about 1 in 8 full-time fire department employees — say they aren’t vaccinated and have no plans to do so.
COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective against the virus, according to health experts. Hospitalizations and deaths are now overwhelmingly among those who unvaccinated, and adverse effects are rare.
The vast majority of firefighters in the region have been fully vaccinated, though rates differ depending on the department — nearby Bellevue’s was 87% as of Oct. 5, for example, and Kirkland’s was 70%. South King Fire & Rescue’s is 82%. Seattle is at 88%, the department said.
Union leaders say some members may be waiting to provide documentation until the deadline. A small group will be allowed to remain unvaccinated because of medical or religious reasons. Those remaining face dismissal.
“That is going to have a horrible effect come Oct. 19,” said South King Professional Firefighters President Ryan Herrera.
In Redmond, the firefighters’ reasons for not getting a coronavirus shot vary — religious beliefs prohibiting vaccines, worries that not enough is known about the shot’s long-term effects, anger over what they consider government overreach. Firefighters declined to comment for this story; they weren’t allowed to disparage their department to the media, according to their spouses, who spoke on their behalf.
The city of Redmond said it was unable to comment on “personnel topics.” A city spokesperson said the city is working through the process with staff, so the final number of employees affected is unclear.
“I can confirm that the city of Redmond has been, and will continue to, follow all county, state, and federal mandates,” said spokesperson Jill Smith.
Redmond fire Chief Adrian Sheppard is working with other city departments to address the potential loss of employees, according to the city, and doesn’t anticipate a negative impact on service levels for the community. Some Redmond firefighters, meanwhile, say the mandate has driven a wedge between those in the department.
“Firefighters share a bond many will never know,” firefighter Tyler Parnell, who isn’t planning to get a vaccine, said at an Oct. 5 City Council meeting. “You live with these people for days at a time and experience things most will never be exposed to, both good and terrible. They are your second family. This mandate is driving a stake between us.”
During the last week of February 2020, Redmond firefighters were among the units assisting other departments with calls from Life Care Center of Kirkland, where residents had coughs, fevers and shortness of breath. Seven firefighters had to quarantine because they were exposed to the virus that killed more than 40 people in the outbreak.
“It was a very surreal time in our lives, and they were obviously busy, and he was stressed out, but he just went to work every day and didn’t complain about it,” said Sophie Pearson, whose husband, Mitchell Pearson, has been with the department for six years and faces termination. “Everyone was staying home, but we didn’t have that luxury.”
Tracy Robillard, whose husband, Brian, is a department lieutenant, said receiving the vaccine is against their religion — their two children are in their 20s and have never received vaccinations. She said they are Christian but would not say which denomination.
“We belong to a church, I believe in Jesus and love the lord,” she said. “My faith is of nobody’s business.”
After Inslee announced the vaccine mandate, a group of firefighters asked for exemptions. According to the firefighters, city and union representatives met to discuss possible ways to accommodate unvaccinated department members, such as continued use of PPE and regular coronavirus tests. The city declined to comment on what had been discussed but said city leaders continue to have meetings with affected employees.
On Sept. 30, however, Mayor Angela Birney signed an executive order that all “provisionally granted accommodations” made by the city were terminated. The executive order acknowledged several firefighters had applied for vaccine exemptions, and while “the city has not questioned the sincerity of the religious beliefs,” city officials had to consider additional factors, such as high hospital occupancy rates and concerns about the highly transmissible delta variant.
Measures like PPE and frequent coronavirus tests aren’t enough to ensure the safety of firefighters, patients and city employees, Birney said in the order.
The executive order allowed enough time for unvaccinated firefighters to receive the Johnson & Johnson shot and be fully vaccinated by the deadline. Those who weren’t have asked the city to reverse its decision.
“If these firefighters are a threat to the safety of the public after the deadline in October, then they are a threat to the safety of the public now,” Mitchell Pearson said at a Sept. 21 City Council meeting. “And yet this evening, there are firefighters that are unvaccinated, who are responding to emergencies, fire calls, medical emergencies and they are doing so safely and effectively with the use of the PPE they have been using for 20 months.”
Pearson’s wife said it’s been hard to watch her husband go through the stress of worrying about how they’ll pay their mortgage and knowing there are people, including family and friends, who are angry with them. But he won’t be getting vaccinated.
“He’s losing this career that he really loves,” she said.