WARRENTON — Mayor Henry Balensifer has warned Gov. Kate Brown that he will be forced to declare an emergency and ask for help from the Oregon National Guard or other state resources if the city’s firefighters quit over the governor’s coronavirus vaccine mandate.
Most of the city’s firefighters are unvaccinated and a significant portion have indicated they will not get a COVID-19 vaccine by Brown’s Oct. 18 deadline for health care workers, teachers and other school staff.
In a letter to Brown on Friday, Balensifer asked the governor for an exemption for volunteer firefighters. The mayor explained that the fire department not only protects lives and property from fires, but responds to emergency medical service calls.
“While the delta variant rages on, and hospitals see the worst thus far, there is a demand to act — which you’ve taken,” Balensifer wrote. “However, while this insidious disease creates hospital capacity issues and deaths — far more people in our city, county and state die from strokes, heart attacks and other causes that require fast attention from EMS providers.
“Fast attention we will not be able to provide should this mandate eviscerate our fire department roster.”
Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Brown, told The Astorian in an email that the governor’s goal is to keep schools, businesses and communities open. He said unvaccinated people in the workplace put themselves and everyone around them at risk.
“If critical first responders are quarantined or hospitalized for COVID-19, who will be left to respond to emergencies in rural communities?” he asked.
The Warrenton Fire Department has three paid staff and 20 volunteers. Fire Chief Brian Alsbury said in an interview that the number could drop into the single digits if — as indicated — most of the unvaccinated firefighters refuse a vaccine and a few vaccinated firefighters quit in solidarity.
Firefighters are not easily replaceable. Many months are required to become trained and certified to fight fires and respond to medical emergencies. The field is also experiencing a shortage of volunteers.
“We don’t have 100 people knocking on our door after the 18th trying to sign up and be a volunteer,” Alsbury said. “And even if we did, it would be four to five months before — or even up to a year before — they’re ready to start providing services to members of the community.”
Alsbury and Balensifer doubted any incentives are likely to persuade unvaccinated firefighters to get the vaccine by the deadline.
“Make no mistake,” Balensifer said, “if those numbers come true, if everybody follows through with their word … that’s gonna be a rude awakening for everybody.”
He said people in Warrenton with serious medical conditions who find themselves needing to dial 911 “may be at significant risk of dying because there may not be somebody able to respond in time … It’s that big of a deal.”
Alsbury worries that if what may happen in Warrenton happens in other regional fire departments, it will disrupt the mutual aid system. He may have a harder time, he said, both receiving help from other fire districts and sending firefighters elsewhere because he will feel the need to focus on his area — “not saying that we won’t, it’s just a bummer that we’re in that position.”
Both Balensifer and Alsbury said they are vaccinated against COVID-19. The fire chief was eager to get the vaccine.
“I thought to myself, ‘There’s no question I’m going to get the vaccine, not only for myself personally and my family, but also as the department head and a leader,’” he recalled. “If the leader and the department head is not taking a vaccine, how are you going to expect anyone else to do it?”
He believes Brown issued the vaccine mandate “for the betterment of Oregon and keeping everyone healthy.” But he feels that, where volunteer firefighters are concerned, the consequences were not fully considered.
“We have a lot to do every day,” Alsbury said, “and this is going to make it even harder.”