Some volunteer firefighters in the South Cariboo are speaking out about what they’re calling a “hasty” decision by the Cariboo Regional District to impose COVID-19 vaccinations on fire department members.
More than 50 firefighters and community members gathered at the South Cariboo Theatre Tuesday to discuss the mandate and how they could push back against it.
One of the main concerns was the impact the mandate could have on staffing levels at volunteer halls around the region if firefighters choose not to get vaccinated.
“The CRD says they’re going to get more volunteers to replace the volunteer firefighters,” said Axel Hvidberg, a volunteer firefighter with the Interlakes department who organized the meeting to raise public awareness.
“The general public isn’t going to come volunteer. It takes a certain level of care and compassion for living in your community and fighting for your community. And they’re going to take that away.”
Hvidberg explained that even if halls don’t shut down completely due to staffing levels, the Fire Underwriters Survey – the national body that provides data on public fire protection for the purposes of property insurance – could reassess communities with fewer volunteer members, causing insurance rates to go up.
In a release last week, the CRD said that no hall closures are anticipated in light of the policy, which takes effect in mid-January. The mandate also applies to all staff, employees, volunteers and directors of the CRD board.
CRD manager of communications Chris Keam said in an email that staff was in communication with fire chiefs “before and during the roll-out of this workplace rule.”
“For privacy reasons, we are not speculating on the vaccination status of our volunteers to the press or public.”
Keam added the CRD will allow extra time to recruit and train new members.
“We provide training materials to the volunteer halls, support their recruitment efforts with our own recruitment page and links to each department, along with social media and video promotion and recruitment efforts,” Keam said.
“The same is true for local search and rescue. We also encourage recruitment with radio and print ads throughout the year.”
Elger Krahn, a lieutenant at the Lone Butte Volunteer Fire Department, said their volunteer department could lose upwards of 12 members – more than half of their current roster of 22 – when the mandate comes into effect.
“We could be standing to lose a lot of people for sure,” Krahn said. “It’s to the point that even our double vaccinated members are ready to walk out as well, to support the others.”
Krahn questioned how the CRD is so confident that no halls will be shut down when – to his knowledge – they have yet to collect statistics on who won’t be in compliance.
He admits the issue of vaccine mandates for volunteers is a tricky one to navigate, noting there are a lot of elements to be considered, including adverse vaccine reactions.
Krahn was diagnosed with myocarditis – swelling of the heart muscles – around six weeks after his first dose in the fall. He spent seven days in hospital, and despite exhibiting symptoms of heart attack and elevated troponin levels (a protein found in the heart muscle that is often a sign of cardiac arrest), no evidence of heart attack could be found.
He said his health care team in Kamloops consulted with immunologists and determined the cause of his myocarditis was linked to his vaccination several weeks before.
However, Krahn said, the BC health officer who reviews the files of potential vaccine injuries ruled it was “unlikely” to be caused by the vaccine.
Regardless, Krahn’s family doctor confirmed he would be eligible for an exemption based on the cardiologist’s findings. But that does nothing to help his colleagues who have chosen not to vaccinate for their own reasons, he said.
“Why I would be allowed to go on a call when I only have one dose, and they’re worried about transmission? It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
Hvidberg said nothing makes sense about the mandate, given that fire crews already wear full PPE and have strict protocols on emergency calls, followed by a decontamination process.
He said he and other members have already proven they are fit to serve by way of medical certification, a criminal record check and a driver’s abstract provided at the time of joining the volunteer department.
“It’s just another invasion of my privacy. What more do they need for us to serve our community?” he asked. “There are very few people who are willing to step up and do this job.”
Hvidberg is encouraging concerned residents to reach out to their CRD directors – all elected officials and some staff were invited to the meeting Tuesday – to express their concerns about the impending mandate.