When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, we hoped that a vaccine could be developed in record time so we could reduce the risk of acquiring the virus ourselves, or worse yet, taking it home to our loved ones. We knew a vaccine was probably at least a year from development, but we hoped for the best as we continued our mission to serve the public. Since then, over 200 fire and EMS personnel have lost their lives to this virus.
On June 12, 2020, Fire Chief Gary Ludwig, then president of the IAFC, testified before a House of Representatives committee, explaining that fire and EMS personnel were at the “tip of the spear” in the fight against COVID-19 and among other things, requested we be top priorities for testing and vaccines. In addition, the IAFF stated in its COVID-19 Interim After-Action Report that once a vaccine becomes available, “firefighters and EMS personnel need to be top priority to protect the public.”
So, when COVID-19 vaccines became available, what happened? Many fire and EMS personnel refused to be vaccinated, ignoring the advice of health experts and putting the health of their coworkers and members of their communities at risk. Instead, conspiracy theories circulated (such as microchips being inserted with the vaccines) as did general distrust of those who spent their entire careers studying, treating and preventing communicable diseases. Imagine someone without any fire service qualifications questioning us on our firefighting tactics or patient care. Imagine them claiming that fire isn’t that deadly, that PPE is unnecessary when working an interior structure fire, or that they trust their neighbors who say “the fire doesn’t look so bad” from their porch over the firefighters reporting from inside burning building.
I have heard several fire chiefs mention that vaccine compliance among their members is as low as 20%. Another fire department reported that only 55% of their department was vaccinated and they were opposed to a vaccine mandate by their city. Their local union cited an individual’s “right to choose.” A fire captain recently railed against his department and union on social media, citing his “freedom of choice.”
As the delta variant of the virus is overwhelming our hospitals and our first responders, there are stories regularly posted online about fire and EMS personnel succumbing to COVID-19. We mourn each of these individuals, but is it possible that these deaths could have been prevented? Hospital ICUs are at capacity, with many on ventilators, most beds taken by unvaccinated patients. It seems like only a matter of time before someone with a heart attack or stroke will not have access to necessary care because all beds will be filled with unvaccinated COVID patients.
How many fire departments have “protect” or “serve” in their mission statement? It is difficult to state that we care about the public we serve when we cite “personal choice” as a reason for not being vaccinated. How would we feel, for example, if we needed emergency surgery and the surgeon advised that he would not be wearing gloves during the procedure, as a matter of “personal choice,” claiming the likelihood of infection is low – something he read online.
The public, in general, worships the job we do on a regular basis. How many times have we been described as heroes? How many times have we counted on community support to assist us in our pursuit for bargaining rights, pay and benefits? Now, at a time when our communities need us during a health crisis that none of us have ever experienced, we decline the request and cite “personal choice.”
When we took an oath to protect and serve, we understood that certain responsibilities come along with the job. We risk our lives to enter burning structures, expose ourselves to carcinogens, communicable diseases and ever-increasing incidences of patient violence. The expectation from a community that their fire and EMS personnel do the best to protect them should be a given. Refusing to be vaccinated as a personal choice might lead one to believe that we are placing ourselves first and couldn’t care a less about the public we serve. A national news correspondent concludes his broadcast every evening with “Take care of yourself … and each other.” The attitude of some of our members might very well be “Taking care of myself … but my personal choice overrides my commitment to others.”
On Aug. 21, the IAFC issued a position statement calling upon “all Fire Chiefs to advocate for the mandatory vaccination of all of the fire and EMS department personnel against the COVID-19 virus by an FDA approved COVID-19 vaccine.” Now that the Pfizer vaccine has FDA approval and others are apparently forthcoming, the excuse that they are “just experimental treatments” rings hollow.
The military has issued a memo requiring the vaccination of all members, and some in the healthcare industry have done the same. We may already be late to the table, but isn’t it time for us to take the lead? It would certainly be a great time to be heroes.
Chris Shimer spent over 30 years in the fire service, retiring as the deputy chief of training and EMS for the Howard County (Maryland) Department of Fire & Rescue. He is currently a member of the IAFC’s EMS Section Board of Directors, serving as director-at-large.
This article originally appeared on FireRescue1 on August 31,2021