Almost one month after islanders learned that Charles Krimmert, the fire chief of Vashon Fire & Rescue, is unvaccinated and opposed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccination mandate for healthcare workers, including firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT), it is still unclear what exactly will happen next in the district.
The matter was made more complex on Monday, when a lawsuit was filed in Walla Walla County Superior Court, saying the constitutional rights of 93 plaintiffs including Washington State Patrol troopers, firefighters and other state and local government employees had been violated by Inslee’s mandate.
On Sept. 9, at a press conference, Inslee defended the mandate as necessary in the wake of spiking case numbers and hospitalization in the state, driven mainly by unvaccinated people.
“I’ve heard some people say it’s an individual decision. That is just so far from the truth,” Inslee said. “The fact is when you make a decision to not be vaccinated, it is not just about your health, it is about the health of everyone around you. We need people to stop thinking so much about me, and start thinking more about we.”
In mid-August, Krimmert asked fire district commissioners to release him from his duty to serve as an EMT, so that he could continue to serve as fire chief. On Sept. 1, the commissioners voted not to change Krimmert’s job description, closing the path for him to keep his job if he remains unvaccinated.
But the vote also meant that Krimmert may still respond to fire and aid calls until Oct. 19, when the mandate is set to take effect. Two commissioners, Brigitte Schran-Brown and Camille Staczek, voted no to the motion because it allowed Krimmert to continue to respond to aid calls in the interim.
In public meetings, Krimmert has said he rarely responds to fire and aid calls, calling it an insignificant portion of his job. Last week, he told The Beachcomber that he had responded to eight aid calls in the past 90 days, including one call in mid-July, when he helped carry a patient up a long series of steps to a waiting aid car.
Krimmert has stated that he does not have a medical or religious reason for not being vaccinated, but rather, that he “takes exception to the governor making medical decisions for me.”
Andy Johnson, chair of the commissioners, said in a phone call on Sept. 13, that he did not know if the chief had changed his mind and decided to become vaccinated before the mandate’s deadline.
“I haven’t heard of any movement on his part,” Johnson said. “I’d like to know what his choice is going to be as well.”
Krimmert could not be reached for comment as to whether or not he is currently planning to be vaccinated.
Four other staff members in the district have said that they will file for medical or religious exemptions to the mandate. One of these, a career firefighter, is still, like Krimmert, responding to calls, because the mandate has not yet taken effect.
The next regular meeting of the commissioners will take place on Sept. 29.
To meet the mandate’s deadline, Krimmert would have had to begin the two-shot vaccination regimen for the Moderna vaccine on Sept. 6, or received the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine by Sept. 13. A third option, to receive the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine by Oct. 4, still exists, though the availability of that vaccine has become limited in recent months.
Ben Davidson, the president of Vashon’s firefighter local 4189, said the union is currently exploring options, if any, that will exist in terms of future duties for firefighters who are granted exemptions to the mandate. But he said it does not appear, at the present time, that they will be able to continue going on aid calls.
Davidson also said he had seen a noticeable shift in the public’s perception of the district since islanders have learned about Krimmert’s vaccination stance.
“People are concerned when we arrive and they ask if we are vaccinated or not,” he said. “I’ve been noticing a change in the way people look at us — it’s like, ’do I trust you or not?’”
Davidson said he wanted islanders to understand that local first responders understood those fears.
“When you are someone who is compromised medically, you don’t have another choice other than calling us, and if we are going to show up and that’s a scary scenario for you, that is something we’re really concerned about,” he said.
Overall, local reaction on Vashon to the chief’s stance has been overwhelmingly critical. Johnson, chair of the commissioners for the fire district, told The Beachcomber that letters received by the district which were critical of the chief, in comparison to supportive letters, mirrored similar percentages to the town’s vaccination rate, which is one of the highest of any community in King County.
On Vashon, 84.5% of the population aged 12 and older are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Notably, Krimmert has served as incident commander of Vashon’s strong pandemic response, made up of volunteer corps including its Medical Reserve Corps, which helped coordinate the island’s strong vaccination campaign. Messaging of the MRC and other volunteer corps has repeatedly stated that vaccinations are safe and effective, and the decision to become vaccinated is one that protects the entire community.
At a recent public meeting, Krimmert defended his administration, saying that he was a strong leader and that “standing up and being heard” about his objections to Inslee’s mandate was an example of that leadership.
A document, obtained by The Beachcomber in a public records request, shows that Krimmert has sought out at least one opportunity to join with other like-minded opponents to the mandate.
He did so in an Aug. 23 letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, as the only fire chief to sign onto a letter from 11 firefighter unions throughout Kitsap, King and Pierce counties — a group that did not include Vashon’s own firefighter’s union.
The letter acknowledged that vaccination is an important tool in the fight against COVID-19, but in several passages, it also defined vaccination as a personal “health matter” and individual “medical decision,” urging the governor to create options including mandatory masking, weekly testing and social distance requirements for those who did not choose to become vaccinated.
In a related document — an email to Allyson Hinzman, president of Tacoma Firefighter’s Local 31, Krimmert thanked Hinzman for signing the letter, but also indirectly seemed to refer to public reaction on Vashon to his stance.
“I am ‘under siege’ here,” he told her.