Unvaccinated firefighters can return to work at Columbia Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) fire halls.
At its Aug. 18 meeting, the regional district board supported amendments to the CSRD’s COVID-19 Proof of Vaccination Policy, which was passed by the board in November 2021 and required staff, elected officials and other personnel, including CSRD firefighters, to show they were fully vaccinated as of Jan. 3, 2022.
One of the amendments was that the policy be suspended for all current paid on-call firefighters and new recruits, with the caveat it be reviewed in six months or sooner, depending on recommendations from the provincial health officer. The board also supported an amendment spurred by Electoral Area C (South Shuswap) director Paul Demenok, giving staff the ability to reinstate the policy at individual or all fire halls as needed.
CSRD staff will be required to show proof of vaccination as a condition of employment before their start date. Elected officials, however, will be encouraged to be fully vaccinated. If they choose not to, they will be required to work remotely where possible. If not possible, they’ll be required to wear a mask when in CSRD facilities and while on CSRD business.
During its discussion, the board focused most of its attention on CSRD firefighters. Protective services team leader Derek Sutherland said as a result of the vaccine policy, the regional district lost 45 (15 per cent) of its firefighters. Last month, fire chiefs and the regional district’s fire services occupational health and safety committee were polled about unvaccinated firefighters returning to work. Sutherland said a two-hour meeting was held from which, “the sentiment was overwhelmingly in favour of a suspension of the policy.”
“We’ve been shy on numbers and it’s putting a strain on the members that have stayed behind,” said Sutherland. “It will be nice to take some of the pressure off those folks and get people back to work and get some semblance of normalcy again.”
Area F (North Shuswap) director Jay Simpson and Area D (Silver Creek/Salmon Valley, Falkland, Ranchero and Deep Creek) director Rene Talbot supported the policy being suspended to get firefighters back to work.
“I’ve had a lot of phone calls and emails over the last probably six months to a year, with a lot of firefighters that haven’t been going to the fire halls because they weren’t vaccinated and they really want to get back to doing what they do,” said Talbot. “Especially with this hot weather, fires are popping up all over the place, so I’m totally in favour of suspending it for the six-month period and seeing how it works out.”
Asked why the policy would be suspended for new recruits, Sutherland said that was part of the two-hour discussion, and it came down to “practicalities of recruiting firefighters.”
“Recruiting firefighters is always a challenge in our small, rural communities and our fire departments are struggling with low numbers… Excluding new unvaccinated firefighters while allowing existing unvaccinated firefighters into the fold was seen maybe as unfair and as a barrier to recruiting new firefighters,” said Sutherland.
Demenok said it was the wrong time to be suspending the policy, noting everyone would soon be moving back indoors and the incidences “of this disease is going to increase significantly in the next three to four months.”
In addition to asking that responsibility be delegated to staff to reinstate the covid policy at fire halls when needed, Demenok also called for mandatory testing of unvaccinated firefighters. The second ask received no support.
A staff report to the board stated that while science still “affirms the need for vaccination in the fight against the spread of the COVID-19 virus and its related variants, it is the position of the fire chiefs and the firefighters that the risk to paid on-call firefighters remains very minimal in that they are generally together for two hours per week and frequently that time is in an outdoor setting.”
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