On Thursday, Vashon Fire Chief Charles Krimmert said that he is a strong leader for Vashon’s fire district, and cited his opposition to Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccination mandate for Washington’s health care workers as an example of that leadership.
“I am not an anti-vaxxer,” Krimmert said. “However, I do take exception to the governor making medical decisions for me. And standing up and being heard on that matter is leadership.”
That statement, along with a deeper defense of his administration, came at a fire district board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 26, on Zoom, which was attended by commissioners, the district’s attorney and more than two dozen community members. The meeting marked the first time that Krimmert has spoken publicly since he told The Beachcomber, two weeks ago, that he is not vaccinated and does not intend to become so in response to the governor’s mandate.
Instead, he has asked the commissioners to alter his job description to release him from his requirement to serve as an emergency medical technician (EMT), so that he can continue to serve as its chief.
As a high-risk first responder, Krimmert has been eligible for vaccination since December of 2020. But at the meeting, he framed his reluctance to be vaccinated in the context of his opposition to the new mandate.
He also cited, as an example of his leadership, his role as incident commander of Vashon’s pandemic response.
“I would suggest, that though I did not do the heavy lifting, I was ultimately responsible for the volunteer corps that got this island’s vaccination percentage to 90-something percent and who maintained the low positive counts on this island,” Krimmert said.
He also said that the district, under his leadership, had developed strong practices to prevent further spreading of the virus. Those efforts are still effective and in play, he added.
His job, he said, was “difficult and hard,” and said, “One of the reasons I got into this situation was it’s been a hard time and I’m frankly exhausted.”
He characterized his blunt statements initially made to The Beachcomber — including the quotation, “If the district wants to keep me, they’ll keep me. If they want to fire me, they’ll fire me” — as a mistake stemming from the fact that he was tired.
“I’ve been working to protect this community and this fire district through a pandemic for 17 months — 17 long, hard trying months,” he said. “The paper caught me worn down and tired and I made the mistake of allowing my frustration to replace my calm.”
He also said that his duties as an EMT with the district are an insignificant portion of his job, calling himself the CEO of the organization. He said he had only served as a lead EMT five times on district calls since his hire.
“I was hired to administrate the organization and I have done that with great success, expanding the career staff, updating the fleet and equipment and stabilizing the financials,” he said.
Responding to critical public comments made by islanders earlier in the board meeting, he apologized but again framed his vaccination stance as a show of leadership.
“I’m sorry I’ve upset so many of you,” Krimmert said. “I’m sorry and I understand the perception that it is poor leadership but I think the personal decision is of tremendous value to this and representative of my commitment to this island and my district.”
Reaction on the island social media platforms to Krimmert’s decision has been heated, with some islanders supporting the chief but many others calling for his dismissal. Several islanders said that their confidence in the fire district had been shaken by the news.
Commissioners pass motion, but leave Krimmert’s request for change in job description on the table
Prior to Krimmert’s public comments, the board met in an executive session, closed to the public. This session took place immediately after public comments made by six members of the public in attendance, all but one of them highly critical of the chief’s stance.
The opening minutes of the closed session were included in a recording of the Zoom meeting, requested by The Beachcomber prior to the meeting and received after its conclusion.
In that segment of the recording, the district’s attorney, Eric Quinn, spoke at the beginning of the closed session.
“I don’t have any comment about the public comment that was made — from a policy perspective that is something the board should discuss,” he said. “What I would say is that no matter what, this mandate is effective Oct. 19, 2021, so this board should consider tonight making some sort of motion stating that Chief Krimmert is not to perform health care services or work in a health care setting unless he’s been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”
Immediately after the closed session, a motion made by Chair Andy Johnson and passed 4-1 by the board, closely mirrored that instruction and signaled the Fire District’s intention to adhere to the governor’s mandate.
“Effective Oct. 19, 2021, Charles Krimmert is not to perform health care services on behalf of the district, in any capacity, unless he has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or has received an exemption from vaccination pursuant to Proclamation 2114,” the motion read it its entirety.
Speaking to The Beachcomber about the motion following the meeting, Johnson said that the motion did not address Krimmert’s request to continue serving as fire chief without performing the role in his job description as an EMT — a decision that would be made at a later time by the commissioners.
“We really didn’t take any options off the table, except to say that he is not going to be responding to aid calls,” said Johnson.
He also said that he and at least one other board member are disinclined to change Krimmert’s job description.
The fire chief is currently paid an annual salary of $162,750 and also receives a full package of benefits.
At the meeting, a second closed session by the board was also held to discuss another employee’s misconduct in the workplace, unrelated to the Krimmert situation. No decision was announced after that discussion, but Johnson said it would again be discussed at upcoming meetings. The nature of that misconduct, and the identity of the employee, have not been made public.
On Monday, VIFR called another special meeting of its board, to be held at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 1, on Zoom. The agenda for the meeting calls for two special closed executive sessions, the first to discuss matters with legal counsel and the second to evaluate the performance of an employee. Any decisions made in the meeting will be announced after the sessions. More information about the meetings and a Zoom link can be found at vifr.org.
More district employees affected by mandate
Also at the meeting, in a separate chief’s report, Krimmert said that a total of six fire district employees would be impacted by the governor’s mandate and that it was likely that three of those employees would apply for exemptions from it based on medical or religious grounds.
The duty to consider those applications for exemptions, he said, would be the responsibility of the fire commissioners.
Previously, Krimmert had told The Beachcomber that only one EMT in the district was affected by the mandate and that person had decided to be vaccinated.
In his phone interview following the meeting, Board Chair Andy Johnson said the meeting was the first time he had heard about the additional employees being impacted, and that the commissioners would be tasked with evaluating any requests for exemptions.
In his chief’s report, Krimmert also said that in the past three weeks, the district had investigated three different possible exposures to COVID by first responders, two of which were work-related. In those cases, he said, it was determined that there were no exposures due to safety protocols practiced by the first responders.
Story of Krimmert’s choice goes regional
Following The Beachcomber’s initial reporting of Krimmert’s refusal to be vaccinated following the mandate, the chief’s stance on vaccination has garnered coverage in The Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and KOMO-TV news.
The Times’ posting of its article about Krimmert on Facebook generated more than 1,000 comments.
According to VIFR chair Johnson, the fire district has also received a very high volume of letters and emails on the subject, with the majority expressing disapproval of Krimmert’s stance.
He said he did not think that island residents were polarized on the topic, citing the island’s high vaccination rate.
“The general feel of the comments is breaking along similar population lines,” he said.