Vashon Island Fire and Rescue (VIFR) commissioners approved a motion on Sept. 1, saying that they would not change Fire Chief Charles Krimmert’s job description, per his recent request, so that he is not subject to Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent vaccination mandate.
The decision took place at a special board meeting, held on Sept. 1, on Zoom.
The motion, made by Chair Andy Johnson after a closed session attended only by the commissioners and VIFR’s legal counsel, stipulated that “the job description for the fire chief not be amended at this time and that it remain a condition of the chief’s employment that he be capable and expected to respond to medical incidents during his tenure as the fire chief.”
Inslee’s mandate requires firefighters and EMTs to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 19, unless they receive a medical or religious exemption.
The passage of the motion — which would seem to close the door to the possibility of Krimmert’s continued employment as fire chief unless he becomes fully vaccinated — is the latest development in an ongoing story since Krimmert’s vaccination status became public knowledge.
In an interview with The Beachcomber three weeks ago regarding the district’s overall response to the governor’s vaccination mandate, Krimmert stated that he was unvaccinated and did not plan to become so.
Instead, he said he would ask VIFR’s Board of Commissioners to release him from his duty to maintain his status as an EMT so that he could continue to serve as the district’s chief.
Additionally, Krimmert said that he did not have a medical or religious reason for refusing the vaccine, but declined to discuss any other reasons he had for not getting the shots.
In recent weeks, the board has grappled with the issue in two other board meetings, first on Aug. 20, in a meeting that was held almost entirely in closed session, and then again at another board meeting on Thursday, Aug. 26.
At the Aug. 26 meeting, the board passed a more narrow motion, stipulating that Krimmert would not be allowed to perform health care services for the strict after Oct. 19, unless he was fully vaccinated at that time.
That evening, the commissioners also listened to public comments by six islanders; all but one were highly critical of the chief’s decisions.
Krimmert also spoke at the Aug. 26 meeting, defending his tenure as fire chief and calling himself a strong leader for the district. He cited his opposition to Gov. Inslee’s mandate as an example of that leadership.
“I am not an anti-vaxxer,” he said. “However, I do take exception to the governor making medical decisions of me. And standing up and being heard on that matter is leadership.”
At the meeting, Krimmert also said his duties as an EMT were an insignificant portion of his job, stating that he had only served as lead EMT on district calls five times since his hire.
On social media and in letters to the editor, local reaction to Krimmert’s opposition to the mandate and the revelation that he was not previously vaccinated have been heated, with the majority of islanders highly critical of the chief.
Board Chair Andy Johnson has also told The Beachcomber that he does not feel that island residents are 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.
Since the dawn of the pandemic, Krimmert has served as incident commander of Vashon’s pandemic response, overseeing testing and vaccination efforts led by volunteer corps that have resulted in Vashon having one of the highest rates of vaccination of any community in King County.
Commissioners explain their votes
The Sept. 1 motion to not change Krimmert’s job description passed 3-2, with commissioners Brigette Schran-Brown and Camille Staczek — who typically vote as a bloc — casting the “no” votes.
“My job is to protect the district, so no,” Schran-Brown said, in the discussion period preceding the vote. Later, In casting her vote, she stipulated it as being, “vehemently, no.”
In a phone interview on Sept. 2, Schran-Brown clarified these statements. She said she agreed that Krimmert’s job description should not be changed, but did not think the motion went far enough to address the current unvaccinated status of Krimmert and other local EMTs who may be unvaccinated at the time, and the potential risks they may pose to patients.
She said that CDC research has shown that unvaccinated people are more likely to become infected with the virus and pass it along to others, saying that should have been taken into account.
“The job description should have been rewritten temporarily to say he and others who are unvaccinated should not respond at all,” she said. “I have a sister with leukemia, the wife of one of our firefighters has leukemia. I cannot in good faith have someone who is not vaccinated go and take care of that person — to me, that is unethical.”
Schran-Brown, who in addition to being a commissioner is also a longtime volunteer EMT with the district, praised Krimmert for his accomplishments during his tenure, particularly his management of the district’s finances and the way he has previously interacted with the community.
But in recent weeks, she said, the district has received many letters from islanders who said they had lost confidence in the district because of Krimmert’s vaccination stance. She also said she had seen this loss of confidence first hand.
“I ran an aid call the other day, and the first thing out of a patient’s mouth was, ‘Are you vaccinated?,’ she said, adding it was the first time a patient had ever asked her that question.
Commissioner Candy McCullough took a different stance on Krimmert’s current ability to go on aid calls at the Sept. 1 meeting and again in phone interviews on Sept. 2 and 3.
“… Because we expect him to continue to [be] available does not mean that he will be running on aid calls in an ongoing way,” McCullough said at the meeting. “So I just want to try to relieve a little bit of the stress from people’s minds that if he does respond, he will wear total PPE, just like the doctors and nurses and all the other EMTs, vaccinated and not vaccinated, across this state wear when they take care of you.”
At the meeting, McCullough also quoted Krimmert as having said “that the last time he took care of a patient was in 2019, and he seldom goes on aid calls” — a statement she clarified in a phone call on Sept. 2.
“I’m sure he has responded to motor vehicle accidents and fires in his role as EMT,” she said, but said that doing so was a “miniscule” part of his job and an unusual role for a fire chief, made necessary only by the fact that Vashon’s fire department is small.
“He’s not generally used in that way,” she said. “His job as chief is to be the visionary and CEO of the department.”
These were roles at which Krimmert had excelled, McCullough said.
“I’m as upset as everyone else that he didn’t get vaccinated, but he wasn’t required to do so,” she said. “He is multi-talented, and the best chief we’ve had [for] forever.”
She also said she found it admirable, that for the greater good, Krimmert had provided leadership to volunteer corps involved in vaccination efforts despite the fact that he did not personally believe in vaccination for himself.
In general, she said, she hoped islanders would make a greater effort to understand Krimmert’s decision, as well as similar decisions made by first responders.
“There is a lack of willingness to try and understand each other,” she said. “People just dig in their heels.”
Krimmert responds to new motion, provides details of recent work as EMT
Krimmert, in a phone interview with The Beachcomber on Sept. 2, said he had no comment on the board’s latest action not to change his job description.
He also declined to answer whether he has now decided to become vaccinated, or give any further comment in response to local reaction to his vaccination status.
The Beachcomber also asked Krimmert if he had responded to any medical or fire calls within the past 90 days.
Krimmert said he did not know and would have his staff look up the records so he could provide them.
Later that day, Krimmert sent an email to The Beachcomber, detailing eight dispatches he had responded to in the past 90 days. These calls included two motor vehicle accidents, four fire suppression dispatches, one smoke investigation dispatch, and one aid call — an incident during which he had helped carry a patient up a long series of steps to an aid car, but did not render medical aid, he said.
Krimmert said it was determined that his services were not needed on the scenes of both motor vehicle accidents and one of the fire calls, and another of the fire calls was canceled when he was on route.
At meeting, commissioners also sanction Chief and Assistant Chief for misconduct
At the Sept. 1 board meeting, commissioners also passed two additional motions, detailing repercussions for misconduct by Assistant Chief Bob Larson and Chief Charles Krimmert.
In recent meetings, the commissioners have gone into closed sessions to discuss misconduct by an employee, saying only that it was not related to the vaccination issue.
The first motion, passed 5-0 by the board, called for a written notice of suspension for one week without pay to Larson, for violations of VIFR policies and code of conduct for possession, carrying and use of a clubbing incident on district property on July 20, 2021, and discourteous treatment of a citizen on that same day.
The second motion, also passed 5-0 by the board, called for the board to issue a written reprimand to Krimmert for his violation of VIFR policy and code of conduct for his discourteous treatment of a citizen on July 20, 2021.
Krimmert, in his phone interview, declined to comment on the incident or action, saying it was a personnel matter.
Board Chair Andy Johnson, in a phone interview, provided some additional details but said more would be provided in an investigative report on the incident which would soon become part of the public record.
In brief, he said that the incident that provoked the measures was complicated.
“Chief Krimmert had been doing his best to try to help a mentally ill islander, and that turned out to have some unintended consequences, and it turned into a confrontation in the lobby of the fire station,” he said.