Six Eastside Fire & Rescue firefighters fired over vaccination status

SAMMAMISH, Wash. — Six unvaccinated firefighters at Eastside Fire and Rescue have been terminated for not complying with the state vaccine mandate, according to a department spokesperson.

The six employees have been on leave since October, when the state vaccine mandate went into effect. Monday was the final day of their six-month leave of absence.

“We were really hoping for that last-minute outreach from the agency that says, ‘Yeah, we want to retain you as firefighters.’ It’s not looking good,” Frank Dahlquist, a now-former captain at Eastside Fire and Rescue, said on Monday. “This was the last day that we could provide evidence of being fully vaccinated … To be honest, (it’s) a little fitting that we’re coming off the Easter holiday.”

Dahlquist is a proud Christian who had his religious exemption unaccommodated. He said, in total, the department was losing more than 190 years of career experience, not including volunteer firefighting.

In total, 11 firefighters were either terminated or left the department due to the vaccine mandate, according to a spokesperson with Eastside Fire and Rescue. The spokesperson also said four employees chose to resign on Oct. 19, two employees separated on a five-year unpaid return-to-work agreement, and four employees were offered light duty assignments until they are vaccinated. One employee declined, while the three others are now vaccinated.

Dahlquist and other firefighters, vaccinated and unvaccinated, formed King County Firefighters United, a group with the sole mission of advocating for fired firefighters due to the state’s vaccine mandate.

The group will be at Bellevue City Hall on Monday, where they plan to speak out at a city council meeting. Unvaccinated Bellevue firefighters will have their six-month leave end on Tuesday.

“It’s a very difficult decision,” Aaron Keller, an unvaccinated Bellevue firefighter who expects to lose his job on Tuesday, said. “I have five children at home. No income. And yet here I am, still continuing on with this. I want my children to see that when I have something I want to fight for, I’m going to fight for it. And I want them to know if they have something in the future that they strongly believe in, that they should fight for it as well.”

Chief Jeff Clark of Eastside Fire and Rescue released the following statement regarding the terminations of unvaccinated firefighters:

“Eastside Fire & Rescue (EF&R) is committed to a safe and healthy workforce for our employees and the communities we serve. On August 9, 2021, Governor Inslee issued a proclamation that required health care workers, including emergency service providers, to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, 2021.

“To comply with the mandate, EF&R staff worked to educate, counsel, and make accommodations for our nonvaccinated employees. This effort enabled us to plan for workforce impacts to response times.

“EF&R provided vaccination opportunities to all employees and hosted multiple vaccination clinics. All nonvaccinated response operations personnel were also provided an opportunity to apply for an exemption and participate in an accommodation process. EF&R was able to work with individual employees and provide a variety of accommodations to those who qualified.

“Through these efforts EF&R reached a 94 percent vaccination rate among its response operations personnel. This number is reflective of the Covid-19 vaccination rate in the communities we serve. The department and our board are saddened by the loss of some of our firefighters but also deeply respectful of their personal choices. As the pandemic continues, EF&R will continue to follow state and local mandates and guidelines.”