Local fire departments are being pulled from both sides, with packed hospitals stretching crews thin and some staffers considering leaving over vaccine mandates. Meanwhile, in-house COVID-19 cases are also impacting stations.
In Napavine, four staffers contracted the virus in the past month, although Chief Dan Mahoney said operations weren’t impacted.
In Toledo, Chief Mike Dorothy said six people recently got sick with the virus over the course of two to three weeks. Out of a 17-person staff, “that takes a pretty good chunk,” he said.
The department was still able to respond to calls, he said, but he’s concerned that Toledo’s roster will soon shrink as career or volunteer firefighters refuse to get vaccinated despite a state mandate.
Nobody has left the force yet, he said, “because the mandate is not until October … but that’s definitely an issue that our department is going to have to deal with, and it could greatly impact our volunteers.”
Dorothy said he’s heard as much as 50% of the staff are considering leaving. Volunteers, whose livelihoods are not on the line, would be more likely to step down.
“That being said, these volunteers are long-term volunteers that serve the community for a long time, and it’s a decision that they’re going to have to make come October,” he said. “I know every department here in Lewis County is feeling the same thing.”
The department will likely wrestle with the issue in upcoming commission meetings, he said, and “they’re going to have to come up with something, because we could potentially lose half our department.”
In Chehalis, the vaccine mandate deadline won’t be an issue. According to Chief Ted Hendershot, 100% of the staff will soon be vaccinated, with only one holdout on his way to get the jab. And there have been no recent in-house COVID-19 cases, he added.
Unvaccinated employees, then, won’t be an issue. Instead, it’s community members contracting the virus and ending up in hospitals — mostly unvaccinated individuals, according to health officials — that are putting stress on the department.
Only two or three people are on duty per shift, Hendershot said. And when Providence Centralia Hospital is diverting patients, emergency crews can spend over an hour trying to transport and offload a patient.
“Then the city’s left unprotected for the whole duration,” he said.
Through mutual aid agreements, some departments struggling with staff may have to rely on the help of neighboring stations. When asked if that could be the case with Chehalis, Hendershot referenced those agreements, but added: “we’re busy as it is.”