Columbia Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) firefighters who choose not to get vaccinated without a valid exemption will not be able to serve their communities, indefinitely.
At a Nov. 18 board meeting, the CSRD’s board of directors unanimously passed a vaccine mandate for the majority of those working under its jurisdiction — including paid on-call (volunteer) firefighters – who must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 3, 2022.
Swansea Point Fire Chief David Schurek chose to take an unpaid leave of absence starting Dec. 1 rather than disclose his vaccination status. He was joined by his deputy chief and six other members of his fire department, which brings its number of active firefighters below 15.
On Dec. 3, Schurek said he’s since asked to be moved from his leave of absence to retirement.
Fifteen firefighters is the minimum number recommended by the Fire Underwriters Survey (FUS) for an accredited fire department, explained Derek Sutherland, CSRD protective services team leader. Communities without accreditation can see higher fire insurance premiums; however, Sutherland said the CSRD maintains a good relationship with FUS and that won’t happen.
“FUS is not in the business of changing our accreditation as we lose and gain members – it’s too much for them to manage,” he said. “When things like this happen, we let them know what our plan is to overcome any challenges and they’re happy to work with us on that.”
Schurek said he’s worried the loss of firefighters will put the community of Swansea Point in danger.
He noted how the Two Mile Road wildfire, which put Swansea Point and Sicamous under a series of evacuation orders and alerts this summer, came within a kilometre of his community.
“Our crew took time off, took their holidays, they came willingly every day for almost 35 days… they put in over 220 hours making sure their community was protected,” said Schurek. “We don’t have a big call volume but the crew I lead is hands down as good as any department out there.”
Sutherland said he respects the privacy of firefighters. “It’s a really difficult decision for some people for this vaccine. Emotions are high right now,” he said.
With Schurek on unpaid leave as of Dec. 1, Sutherland and CSRD fire services coordinator Sean Coubrough became acting fire chiefs for Swansea Point — and any other fire departments that lose their chief – until a new one is trained or found. This means they’ll attend weekly practices, as well as any calls a department receives.
Sutherland and CSRD communications coordinator Tracy Hughes noted the full extent of the impact of the vaccine mandate on all CSRD fire departments was not yet known and should be in the coming weeks.
Silver Creek Fire Department Fire Chief Len Sarrazin also chose to go on unpaid leave as he didn’t want to get a COVID-19 vaccine. He estimated four to six other members of his department will be leaving and he was worried about response times in his area.
Sarrazin said he and his son are the only firefighters in the department who live in Silver Creek full-time.
Sutherland said in Swansea Point’s case, the Sicamous Fire Department has temporarily been assigned automatic mutual aid, meaning they’re asked to come to any Swansea Point call. Sarrazin thinks a similar solution won’t work as well for Silver Creek as it’s further from neighbouring communities.
Getting fire departments back to running on their own is the CSRD’s top priority, said Sutherland, adding the regional district will be working to recruit more members and further train existing ones.
Schurek and Sarrazin have both expressed concern about the cost and time commitment required to train new members, adding trained ones leaving due to the mandate is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Sutherland said it’s a shame COVID-19 has created such a divide, but added the CSRD’s board has made the best decision it can for those it represents.
“The really rotten part is we’re losing some good people and we love our people and we don’t want to lose them,” said Sutherland. He said the following has been communicated to firefighters choosing to take an unpaid leave of absence.
“If the policy changes in the future, they’re welcome back, if they choose to get vaccinated, they’re welcome back, if they’re successful in getting an exemption, they’re welcome back.”
Schurek said his department would be happy to comply with a rapid testing alternative to the vaccine mandate, so long as the tests are supplied by the CSRD. However, Sutherland said the regional district’s large size, alongside the cost associated with the tests, makes that option not feasible.
“This is one of the toughest leadership situations I’ve been in after 10 years as a manager of local government,” said Sutherland.