Some fire departments are challenging a proposed vaccine mandate by the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, with one hall saying it could lose more than 60 per cent of its members.
The Vavenby Volunteer Fire Department (VVFD) had only a 38 per cent vaccine rate when the TNRD announced Dec. 6 that all staff, contractors and volunteers within the region would be required to be fully vaccinated by Feb. 1, 2022, according to TNRD statistics. The impending mandate includes volunteer firefighters across the region. It does not apply to the Districts of Clearwater and Barriere volunteer fire departments.
“I was very disappointed,” said VVFD fire chief Philip Weber. “I have four members in my fire hall that spent 1,800 hours between them fighting wildfires on deployment this summer in other communities. None of them are vaccinated, and don’t want to be.
“They were brave enough to help when their help was needed, now they are going to be thrown aside.”
At press time, representatives from the TNRD were not available for an interview. A statement was later provided by the TNRD noting the policy was enacted to “ensure our workplaces are as safe as possible for not only our workers but the public we serve” adding vaccination has proven to be the most effective way to combat COVID-19 and its variants.
“Many jurisdictions have already implemented workplace vaccination policies ahead of the TNRD doing so.”
TNRD Area A Director Carol Schaffer provided statistics from the regional district, suggesting VVFD was the only department within the regional district with a vaccination rate below 65 per cent when the mandate was announced. As of Dec. 16, however, the vaccination rate has increased slightly to just under 50 per cent.
The South Green Lake Volunteer Fire Department, by comparison, had 100 per cent of its members fully vaccinated at the time of the announcement. Blackpool Volunteer Fire Rescue (BFR) Chief Mike Savage, who is also the administrative chief for Little Fort Volunteer Fire Department, noted BFR had a vaccination rate of 85 per cent, while LFFD was at 66 per cent.
Savage noted the remaining 15 per cent of members in the Blackpool department are at various stages of vaccination or are weighing their options.
“A loss of any trained fire volunteers is a critical blow to any department,” Savage told the Times. “We cannot just replace a volunteer firefighter overnight — the training program takes time.”
Weber said to his knowledge, there was no consultation with department members before the policy was announced. The decision means 12 members in his department, including himself and VVFD Capt. Neil McRae, will no longer be able to serve the community.
While the eight remaining fully-vaccinated crew members have the skills to serve the community, Weber noted that it takes roughly 14 to 19 bodies, depending on the incident, to cover jobs such as incident commander, pump operator, safety officer, hose teams and tanker operator, among others.
McRae added other entities have implemented vaccine mandates, but offer regular testing for those who weren’t vaccinated. He questions why something similar couldn’t be offered in the TNRD.
“Although I know the remaining members will do the best job they can, I also know that it takes a lot of members to provide a thorough response to almost all emergencies,” McRae said in a written statement. “I think of the devotion by certain members who have built the VVFD into a department that is the envy of small town in B.C. and it troubles me to the core that something as manageable as this health issue could bring it all down! I sincerely hope wiser minds will prevail.”
Schaffer said she wasn’t sure if fire departments were included in the discussions regarding the mandate but noted senior and other staff members, as well as unions, were involved in consultation with TNRD lawyers.
She noted the TNRD will hold a meeting with the Vavenby, Blackpool and Little Fort fire departments in January to discuss the situation and determine next steps. After the Feb. 1 deadline, recruitment efforts will also be made to fill the spaces left behind by those who do not comply with the mandate, she said.
“To date, our firefighters are still on the job,” she said. “We have very conscientious and honourable firefighters in our fire departments and I respect each and every one of the firefighters who put their lives on the line for the communities they serve.”
Savage questioned whether surrounding departments outside of the TNRD, such as the Clearwater Volunteer Fire Department, will be required to be fully vaccinated as the departments hold mutual aid agreements.
He noted the BFR, as well as other fire departments in the regional district, have been operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, following various protocols for decontamination and personal protective equipment to protect members and the public. At each practice session or call out, a self-declaration of health was required. The BFR has not had a positive case of COVID-19 to date, he said.
“Hopefully we can find a policy balance that meets the emergency service delivery model for the community that protects and works for everyone including volunteers and the public,” said Savage.
Community responds to mandate
Many community members in and around Vavenby took to social media in response to the impending mandate.
One resident wrote a letter addressed to Schaffer, saying she was concerned the move would lead to departments being short-staffed. It was shared to the Vavenby BC Info Board Facebook page.
A petition has also been circulating on social media, with hard copies posted in Vavenby, Clearwater and Little Fort, calling on the TNRD to remove the mandate.
“We are coming together as a community demanding that you do not lay off or fire any of the workers in our community, union member or not, based on their medical choice to remain unvaccinated or vaccinated!” the petition reads.
At press time, it was unknown how many signatures the petitions had gathered.
Schaffer noted that everyone has a right to their own opinions but the mandate won’t be retracted any time soon.
“At this point, the TNRD will not be changing their direction,” she said. “After doing a lot of research, the vaccine is the most effective way to keep our communities safe…the main reason I chose the vaccine is for the safety of my families, community and myself.”
The mandate does not include elected officials, such as area directors, who would need to implement their own mandate if they so choose, according to TNRD chief administrative officer Scott Hildebrand. Although a majority of the board, including Schaffer, was in support of such a move, TNRD staff were tasked with investigating the correct procedure for doing so.