Type “firefighter COVID-19” into any online search field and you will get a staggering number of articles about firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs dying of COVID-19 every day in this country. I did this on Twitter recently and the juxtaposition was stark. Article after article of firefighters who have died from COVID-19, in between article after article of firefighter unions speaking out against and suing their cities over vaccination mandates. Yes, you read that correctly. This is even more shocking given that in 2020, more firefighters died of COVID-19 than they did fighting fires: 213 fire and EMS personnel have died from COVID-19 thus far.
Last month, a union representing emergency workers with the New York Fire Department came out against a vaccination mandate that requires all city employees to either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing. Since then, many other fire unions have put out similar statements. The Richmond Firefighters Association in Virginia openly criticized the mayor’s mandate that employees get vaccinated against COVID-19. The Hawaii firefighters union filed a class-action lawsuit stating that a vaccine mandate violates their constitutional rights. And firefighters from the Los Angeles Fire Department held a protest speaking out against vaccine mandate despite ongoing outbreaks in the department.
And lest we think that this isn’t a local issue, the president of Philly’s firefighter union went on the news to make his views known, stating, “We aren’t going to tolerate anyone jamming anything down our throats.”
Do you think he gets the irony in that statement (see: endotracheal tube insertion)?
Please, someone explain to me why our unions, whose stated primary objective is to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of its membership, are fighting so hard against mask and vaccination mandates that would protect us.
Let’s put aside for a second that we are in the midst of a public health crisis. We are supposed to be public safety “professionals.” Literally, in our job description and in our oath of office, is the promise that, in the course of our service, we will protect the community above all else.
When a citizen calls 911 to their home for an emergency, they surely are not expecting to be put in more danger by becoming exposed to COVID-19 by unvaccinated responders who are there to help. It’s ironic since in Philadelphia the fire department members are responsible for staffing COVID-19 vaccination clinics in underserved communities. Yet there are no requirements for those administering the vaccinations to be vaccinated themselves.
If not for the community we swore to protect, then why not for our brothers and sisters? Last week the International Fire Fighters Association (IAFF) president came out publicly to strongly recommend that all IAFF members receive the vaccine. But instead of supporting vaccination efforts for its own members, the leadership of Local 22 (the Philadelphia Firefighters and Paramedics Union) are going against our parent international union, even though two members of the Philadelphia Fire Department have died in the past year from COVID-19. Make it make sense.
For my part, over the last year and a half I have been trying hard to ensure that I do not get or spread COVID-19 at work. I have been double masking with high quality masks in the firehouse and on responses since last November. I’ve been sleeping in offices on my night shifts to avoid the communal bunk room. I’ve been eating in hallways or outside away from maskless and possibly unvaccinated members. I’ve been camping out on the un-air-conditioned apparatus floor by the trucks morning, noon, and night with the doors open regardless of weather. I got vaccinated immediately, and as soon as I’m eligible I will be getting my booster, too.
Starting on Sept. 1, Philadelphia will be requiring all city employees who are vaccinated to provide proof, new employees hired will need to be fully vaccinated, and employees who choose not to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 1 will be required to double mask at all times at work. While it’s a start, I am urging the mayor to make vaccinations mandatory for all city employees because I take our oath to protect the health and safety of our community members very seriously. I call on all firefighters and union members to do the same.
Jennifer Leary is a firefighter and a Philadelphian.