Charlie’s choice

The issue of the fire chief’s vaccination status has divided the community.

In the past week, Vashon has roiled with the news that our fire chief has not been vaccinated against COVID-19, and has thus far refused to become vaccinated in response to Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate for firefighters and EMTs to do so by Oct. 18.

Instead, Chief Charles Krimmert has asked fire district commissioners to release him from his duty to serve as an emergency medical technician (EMT) so that he can continue to serve as the district’s chief.

In a phone call with The Beachcomber, Krimmert said bluntly that the commissioners’ other choice was to fire him.

After a hastily-convened commissioners’ meeting last Friday, held in closed session, Chair Andy Johnson said that the commissioners had not discussed Krimmert’s ultimatum, but that the district would be in compliance with the governor’s mandate.

This means, of course, that even if the commissioners decided to keep Krimmert as fire chief, and he remains unvaccinated, he would not be able to respond to any fire or medical calls — something that is in his job description for a reason. While working on a ferry-dependent island that is not home to all of the district’s firefighting force, Krimmert has, in fact, responded to calls many times while serving as chief.

One also wonders how Krimmert’s $162,750 annual salary would be adjusted with that change in his job description, and if additional staff would have to be hired to fill his role as an EMT and firefighter.

Krimmert won’t say why he is not vaccinated, other than the fact that he does not have a medical or religious reason, leaving the question open to speculation.

Certainly, it is possible that Krimmert objects to the governor’s mandate, even though Inslee clearly has the legal right to impose it, under the broad provisions of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 43.06). Krimmert is also a highly paid government worker; one would expect he would respect his employer’s rules.

But opposition to a new mandate wouldn’t explain away why Krimmert isn’t vaccinated.

Vaccines have been widely available for months now, and Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corp — which Krimmert has overseen as Incident Commander of Vashon’s emergency response to the pandemic — has repeatedly encouraged all eligible islanders to get the shots, citing the safety, efficacy and public health benefits of the vaccines.

Recently, with the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant, an avalanche of statistics from states hard-hit by the current spike in cases has shown that unvaccinated people are at the highest risk of severe outcomes and death from COVID-19.

During that time, Krimmert has risked those outcomes not only for himself but also for other unvaccinated and immunocompromised others with whom he has interacted — he has gone on medical and fire calls and met indoors with commissioners, community members and his staff. Though masked in all these situations, this behavior, to many, is worrying.

It is deeply unfortunate that Charlie’s choice has also now divided our community and eroded confidence in our fire district. On social media, some islanders have even speculated that their criticism of Krimmert might result in the district not responding to their calls for assistance.

This should never be in question. We are confident that our heroic firefighters will continue to act with urgency to serve everyone on Vashon. But the fact that some islanders now even wonder if they are safe from retaliation is beyond troubling.

Facebook threads about Krimmert’s unvaccinated status have also devolved into heated arguments between the pro-and anti-vaccination camps, with many islanders demanding that Krimmert be fired and some others praising him for refusing the vaccine and calling on him to stick to his guns.

It is hard to see a way forward for Krimmert to continue to serve effectively as fire chief on Vashon, after all this.

Neither camp would be happy if Krimmert changes his mind, and decides to comply with the mandate after all. For those who oppose the vaccine, that would be a capitulation; for those who now want him fired, it would be too little, too late.

And only those who oppose the mandate and/or vaccination — a demographic we suspect is a minority fraction of our population, given Vashon’s 83% vaccination rates — would cheer the commissioners’ approval of any plan to let him stay on as an unvaccinated chief.

Either scenario would need to be accompanied by a highly polished public relations campaign — and doesn’t our fire district already have enough to do right now?

This turn of events is surprising and deeply disappointing, as many of Krimmert’s past actions as fire chief — in particular his long and vitally important collaboration with VashonBePrepared — have been those of a highly effective public servant.

But that is not what we have seen in the past week.

Andy Johnson, chair of the commissioners, said that the board does not face an immediate deadline in this situation, as the mandate will not go into effect until Oct. 18.

Still, we hope this can be resolved quickly. It is weighing on many islanders’ minds. They are the ones who pay for Krimmert’s handsome salary, and they elected the commissioners who oversee his work. We here at The Beachcomber hope for the best — that whatever happens, our Fire District will be one that islanders can support and be proud of.