Allowing unvaccinated firefighters back to work will be part of the discussion when the Columbia Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) board revisits the regional district’s vaccination policy.
The board will be reviewing the COVID-19 Proof of Vaccination Policy at its Aug. 18 meeting.
Approved by the board on Nov. 18, 2021, the policy required by CSRD personnel to show they were fully vaccinated by Jan. 3, 2022.
The policy applied to all CSRD elected officials and staff paid-on-call firefighters and emergency management volunteers.
The inclusion of CSRD firefighters sparked some backlash, with at least two fire chiefs, as well as other firefighters, choosing to take unpaid leave. In December, a small group of citizens gathered outside the CSRD building to ask the board to reconsider the mandate extending to firehalls.
At its July 21, meeting, the board received an update on the vaccination policy by interim CAO Jodi Pierce. She said the board received a package of signatures from people requesting all vaccine mandates be dropped, adding that “while there were 844 (signatures), it appears there were quite a few duplications.”
However, Pierce said staff had been polled on the matter, and though they were largely in favour of keeping the policy, it was suggested it no longer apply to contractors and elected officials – though vaccination would still be encouraged.
Fire chiefs and the regional district’s fire services occupational health and safety committee were also polled, resulting in a recommendation that the vaccination policy be suspended, not eliminated, for all current paid-on-call firefighters and new recruits, and that the policy be reviewed in six months or earlier dependent on recommendations from the Provincial Health Officer.
The board asked that a draft policy with the proposed changes be ready for its August meeting. Some board members, however, wanted the recommendation for firefighters to go into effect immediately.
“That puts it off another month – I think that’s potentially problematic given we’re in a very hot, dry spell at this point and forest fires, well, any kind of fires, could be a much bigger problem throughout the next six weeks and beyond,” said Electoral Area F (North Shuswap) director Jay Simpson.
CSRD chair and Salmon Arm director Kevin Flynn said there was nothing written before the board to vote on. He asked Protective Services Team Leader Derek Sutherland if a decision needed to be rushed regarding firefighters.
“Of course, BC Wildfire has responsibility for fighting those fires and we’ve been informed by BC Wildfire that they’ll be keeping their mandate in place,” said Sutherland. “Only our vaccinated firefighters will be able to go on deployment with BC Wildfire. I don’t know that it will affect that. If we talk about this in August or if the board makes a decision in August, I think that would be sufficient for our firefighters.”
Electoral Area D (Silver Creek/Salmon Valley, Falkland, Ranchero and Deep Creek) director Rene Talbot added his voice to suspending the policy asap for firefighters, noting he’d spoken to a couple of unvaccinated firefighters who were ready to “get back onboard.”
“We’re heading into a hot season right now and these guys are ready to go back to the firehall right now if the mandate is removed,” said Talbot. “I think it should be left up to the fire departments, the chief and the assistant chief, to decide what they want to do.”
Electoral Area C (South Shuswap) director Paul Demenok agreed with the need for a written report and cautioned circumstances with COVID-19 and its variants could change in the coming months.
A staff report for the Aug. 18 meeting states 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.”
The CSRD board meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 18. To see the agenda, or for more information, visit www.csrd.bc.ca.
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