In the wake of Fire Chief Charles Krimmert’s declaration that he does not plan to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in response to Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate that includes firefighters and EMTs, five prominent leaders of Vashon’s pandemic response have commented in a joint statement.
In a letter, Vicky de Monterey Richoux, Rick Wallace, Dr. Clayton Olney, Dr. Jim Bristow and Jan Milligan, all of whom have played various leadership roles with VashonBePrepared, Vashon’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), responded to The Beachcomber’s request for comment. The five wrote their statement, not on behalf of the groups they lead, but rather, as individuals.
The letter began with a strong assertion that vaccination has been — and continues to be — the most effective tool in the fight against COVID-19.
“Science has been our guide through all this and numerous studies show vaccination reduces infection, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, including for the Delta variant now circulating among us,” their writers said. “Get vaccinated.”
They also said they had been surprised to learn that Krimmert was not vaccinated, and they expressed concern for his safety in light of this, as well as for the safety of all other unvaccinated islanders. But the letter writers also detailed another concern.
“Sadly, we also worry that some may seize on his position as a rationale against vaccination,” they said.
Still, though de Monterey Richoux, Wallace, Olney, Bristow and Milligan said they disagreed with Krimmert’s choice, they had also felt greatly supported in their longtime collaboration with the Chief in his interactions with VashonBePrepared both during the pandemic and previous to it.
“Although we disagree with his choice, we also feel we are duty-bound to recognize our work with him over the pandemic months and for years before that,” they wrote. “Whatever his views, much of what has been accomplished would not have happened without his support. It is a simple fact that no other Chief we served has done as much to support the work of the VashonBePrepared coalition.”
The next steps, they said in closing, were up to the Fire Commissioners and the Chief.
In other developments, the board of Vashon Island Fire and Rescue held a special meeting on Friday, Aug. 20, to discuss the matter.
Last week, Krimmert told The Beachcomber that he has asked VIFR’s commissioners to release him from his duty to maintain his status as an EMT so that he can continue to serve as the district’s chief.
“If the district wants to keep me, they’ll keep me, if they want to fire me, they’ll fire me,” he said.
When asked directly, Krimmert said he did not have a medical or religious reason for refusing the vaccine — the only exemptions that are allowed by Inslee’s mandate.
Meeting held in closed session
The commissioners’ meeting on Aug. 20, which took place on Zoom, was held largely in closed session, as VIFR announced it would be when the meeting was called the previous day.
Those present included the district’s attorney, Eric Quinn, and all the district’s commissioners with the exception of Candy McCullough, who was not present. Krimmert also did not attend the meeting.
Thirty-five members of the public, including a reporter from The Seattle Times, were also in attendance.
In his welcome to those attending, Chair Andy Johnson explained that the closed session, not open to the public, was necessary in order to discuss the performance of a public employee. He said that any decisions reached in the meeting would be discussed after the closed session.
Several members of the public then spoke up or wrote comments into the Zoom chatbox, questioning the protocol and asking if the public would have a chance to weigh in on the matter.
“There definitely needs to be public comment [by] the people who pay for VIFR, before you make a decision on the matter,” one attendee wrote.
In response, Johnson said that the commissioners had been “virtually inundated … with letters and comments,” but had not yet had an opportunity to discuss the situation together, and the closed session was their chance to do that. Closed sessions to discuss personnel were appropriate and common for the commissioners, he said.
The district’s attorney, Eric Quinn, also briefly spoke. He said that the board controlled the agenda and closed off the possibility of public comment.
After 40 minutes, the board re-opened the Zoom meeting to the public, to announce that no decision had been made.
In closing remarks, Johnson stated that while the board had concerns about whether the chief would be vaccinated at the time that mandate went into effect on Oct. 18, VIFR would be in full compliance with the law.
He urged islanders to email VIFR and the commissioners to voice their concerns.
The issue would be on the agenda again at the commissioners’ next board meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 26, he said.
“We appreciate that this is a polarizing event, and we’re going to handle this as best we can,” he said.
In a phone call after the meeting, Johnson said that the commissioners had not discussed Krimmerts’ ultimatum that the commissioners could either release him from his duties as a firefighter/EMT or fire him.
“We are doing our best not to rush to any decisions,” he said. “At this point, there is no need to rush.”
To comply with Inslee vaccination mandates, and retain his status as EMT currently stipulated in his job description, Krimmert would need to begin the vaccination process soon in order to meet the mandate’s deadline.
If receiving the Moderna vaccine, he’d need to get his first shot by Sept. 6; if receiving the Pfizer vaccine, he’d need to get his first shot by Sept. 13. With the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, he’d need to be inoculated by Oct. 4.
In recent days, islanders have weighed in about the matter on social media, with many calling on the board to fire Krimmert. Others have expressed support for his refusal of the mandate.
Krimmert is one of the island’s most visible and highly paid public servants, with an annual base salary of $162,750.
Notably, as VIFR’s chief, Krimmert has served as Incident Commander of Vashon’s response to the pandemic. In that capacity, he has overseen the efforts of the island’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), including the standing up of the island’s COVID vaccination and testing sites. The EOC and MRC have repeatedly urged all eligible islanders to become vaccinated, citing the efficacy and safety of the vaccines and the public health benefits of vaccination.
Currently, 83% of islanders 12 and older are fully vaccinated against the virus, and 93% have received one dose of the vaccine.
Email addresses for VIFR administration and the fire commissioners can be found at vifr.org/content/about/commissioners.cfm. Information about the Aug. 26 meeting of commissioners can also be found at vifr.org.