For Spokane County Fire District 2 Commissioner David Degon, Washington's vaccine mandate creates a stark choice.
In the all-volunteer fire department south of Spokane already light on medical responders, what happens if the only firefighter who can respond to an emergency is unvaccinated?
"Do we not respond and let somebody die?" Degon says. "Or do we respond?"
That's why Degon and the district's two other fire commissioners, Steven Braughn and Steven Primmer, decided not to fully abide by the vaccine mandate. An unvaccinated medical responder may sometimes provide patient care, they say.
"We as commissioners decided we will follow it as best as possible, but if we need to go forward without someone being vaccinated, we will do that," Degon says.
But many of those unvaccinated firefighters could be responding to help the patients most likely to be infected or killed by COVID-19. Nearly half of the department's medical calls are to Palouse Country Assisted Living, which provides long-term care for seniors. Long-term care facilities have been ravaged by the virus throughout the pandemic, with COVID deaths related to those facilities accounting for 35 percent of COVID deaths in Washington. Palouse Country Assisted Living did not respond to multiple Inlander messages seeking comment.
Eric Olson, fire district chief for District 2, strongly disagreed with the commissioners' decision not to always follow Gov. Jay Inslee's vaccine mandate. But he was overruled.
"I said the mandate from the governor is a legal mandate," Olson says. "And we need to be enforcing it."
Still, the situation illustrates the unique challenges the vaccine mandate has presented to rural fire departments already strained by the COVID-19 pandemic. These fire departments typically contain only dozens of volunteer firefighters to cover wide, sparsely populated areas, and not all of them are trained for medical calls. So in a fire district like District 2, just a few firefighters choosing to be unvaccinated can be a heavy blow to the emergency response.
"Definitely, the mandate has made it very difficult for small departments like ours," Olson says.
Inslee's vaccine mandate covers any firefighter who responds to medical calls as part of their official duties. That includes EMTs, paramedics and volunteer firefighters who perform medical services.
But the mandate has sparked pushback among a small percentage of firefighters, whether they're in a rural fire department or an urban one.
In Spokane, about one-sixth of the department requested vaccine exemptions, though some withdrew those requests. A group of state workers and emergency responders even sued Inslee, Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer and others, arguing that the mandate violated their civil rights. A federal judge in Spokane rejected their bid to halt the mandate.
In Fire District 2, the total roster is 23 volunteer firefighters, Olson says. Fifteen of those respond to medical calls, and of those, four have chosen to be unvaccinated. None of them have sought an exemption, and they didn't explain why to Olson.
"The real problem is when we don't have the ability to respond with vaccinated responders, what should happen in those instances? Obviously we want to have vaccinated individuals in contact with patients when we do have patients," Olson says.
The fire commissioners, however, are willing to be more flexible. Degon says it's not because they're against the vaccine. Degon himself is vaccinated. But he calls the mandate "BS."
When reached by the Inlander, Mike Faulk, deputy communications director for Inslee's office, says the governor's office has not encountered this issue before now. If the state were to receive a complaint, Faulk says it would be worked out with the fire district, the state health department, the state Department of Labor and Industries, and other local health authorities.
"The fire district of course could reach out proactively to the state as well if they are not sure or anticipate this course will not be in compliance with the law," Faulk writes in an email.
"We both want the same thing for our community — as fast as possible EMS response to all emergencies."
Degon says it's impractical for the fire department to actually follow the mandate. Being 40 minutes from Spokane, firefighters in District 2 often can't rely on an American Medical Response ambulance, he says. They require two responders on every call. But in the middle of the night or during workday hours, there might be only one or two medical responders available in total.
"If it's down to two people, and one is vaccinated and one is not, the unvaccinated one is probably still going to go on the call," Degon says.
Olson has told the commissioners he doesn't agree with that plan.
"I do have a differing view from the commissioners about how we should be executing operations under the mandate. And I continue to hold that view," Olson says. "I made it explicitly clear with them that I did not see an avenue through this mandate to allow unvaccinated responders to assist with patient care."
But ultimately, Olson says, he still respects where the commissioners are coming from.
"We both want the same thing for our community — as fast as possible EMS response to all emergencies," Olson says. "Where we differ is in how much latitude we have to accomplish that for our citizens."
Small fire departments were already struggling with recruitment before the pandemic. And now, they're trying to recruit volunteers to be on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis in addition to being ready to go out to a raging wildfire.
Olson's volunteer firefighters were among the first to respond to the fire a year ago that destroyed the small town of Malden, for example.
"We're taking someone who's an accountant, and when the tones go off, they have half a night of sleep and they're going to respond to an emergency, or something they've never seen before," Olson says.
In neighboring Fire District 12, Chief Josh Evans says he's seen a 25 percent decrease in volunteer firefighters on the roster — down to 21 from 28 three years ago.
Evans calls the vaccine mandate an "undue necessity that we shouldn't have to be dealing with."
Still, his district and other fire districts in Spokane say they're following the governor's mandate. Sometimes that means assigning unvaccinated responders to traffic control. Other times, it may mean fewer firefighters available to provide lifesaving measures.
"That's going to hurt the general public," Evans says.
Bill Dennstaedt, deputy chief at Spokane County Fire District 3 west of District 2, says they have had a lack of personnel on emergency calls too, but are "following the mandate the best we can."
Other fire districts, however, have had minimal issues. Jack Cates, fire chief of Fire District 9 farther north in Spokane County, says it's worked out fine, given a few adjustments.
From a broader perspective, he says no longer dealing with COVID-19 would be the best thing for all fire departments. And vaccines can help with that.
"The best thing we can do," Cates says, "is do what we can to move past the pandemic. And I think we all know what that is." ♦