Yakima Co. firefighters ‘respectfully disagree’ with vaccine mandate

'We’re not advocating for or against the vaccine. We’re just standing behind the personal choices of employees.'

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. — Local fire officials and firefighters’ unions are asking Gov. Jay Inslee to reconsider his COVID-19 vaccine mandate for frontline workers, arguing it will cause already short-staffed fire departments to lose personnel.

“With this mandate, the entire upper valley of Yakima and beyond, stands to lose a significant portion of its firefighters,” firefighters said in a letter sent to Inslee on Sunday.

The letter asks Inslee to consider a new mandate concerning COVID-19 testing, which would take the place of the current mandate requiring all frontline workers — including professional firefighters, volunteer firefighters, EMTs and paramedics — to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or risk losing their jobs.

“We believe that mandatory testing will have the same effect in curbing the spread of COVID-19, while still giving first responders the medical freedom that they deserve,” firefighters said in the letter.

Local firefighters’ unions — IAFF Local 469 Yakima Firefighters and IAFF Local 469 East Valley Firefighters — along with West Valley Fire and Rescue Chief Nathan Craig and Selah Fire Chief Jim Lange all signed the letter.

“We have heard from a few of our volunteers that feel very strongly against the vaccination that if they are forced to do this, they will choose to resign from the department,” Lange said. “We’re not advocating for or against the vaccine. We’re just standing behind the personal choices of employees.”

Fire departments across the county rely heavily on those volunteers. The Yakima Fire Department is the only all paid — “career” — fire department in the upper Yakima Valley. East Valley has a combination of both, but Selah, West Valley and most other area fire departments are primarily volunteer-based.

The Selah Fire Department has seven full-time career staff and about 60 volunteers. Lange said he stands to lose about 10 percent of his firefighters if the vaccination mandate stays in place.

“[Volunteer firefighters] don’t get paid much; the benefits are okay, but they’re not great,” Lange said. “There’s not a lot of incentives for people to actually be a volunteer firefighter right now and this is just one more thing to keep them from doing that.”

Mark Buskas, vice president of the IAFF Local 469 Yakima Firefighters Association, said the union is concerned about how the departure of more personell would affect the already short-staffed departments in the upper Yakima Valley. He said the Yakima Fire Department should ideally have 1.5 firefighters per 1,000 residents, but is currently at .90 firefighters per 1,000.

Buskas said despite being the third largest city east of the mountains, their per capita budget is $150.51. In comparison,  Kennewick or Richland — cities which have roughly 20,000 to 57,000 fewer citizens — have per capita budgets of $198.26 and $279.00 respectively.

“Currently, the EMS system is struggling in the county,” Buskas said. “The ambulance providers are facing a nationwide personnel shortage.”

Buskas said fire department budgets have also been tightened during the pandemic due to a loss of revenue

“If we lose even more personnel to this mandate, we will potentially face fewer fire personnel in the county to respond to emergencies,” Buskas said.

Fire departments across Yakima County are looking for volunteer firefighters, including:


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