NORTH BEND, Wash. - Ten firefighters in east King County are now out of a job-- they were let go from Eastside Fire & Rescue on Monday because they are not vaccinated against COVID-19.
Chief Jeff Clark said the agency is following the governor’s mandate of all emergency service providers being fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, 2021. Clark said Eastside offered multiple vaccination clinics, as well as opportunities for staff to apply for exemption and participate in an accommodation process. The chief said those efforts led to a 94% vaccination rate amongst employees.
"This number is reflective of the COVID-19 vaccination rate in the communities we serve. The department and our board are saddened by the loss of some of our firefighters but also deeply respectful of their personal choices. As the pandemic continues, EF&R will continue to follow state and local mandates and guidelines," wrote Clark in a statement.
For Rocky Martinez, 18 years with the agency came to an emotional end.
"Never in a million years. I thought I’d go out on an injury or disability before this ever happened," said Martinez, while holding back tears.
Martinez was a Lieutenant and veteran serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. He said working for Eastside was his dream ever since he was a sophomore in high school. Martinez recalls interning with firefighters there for three years while he was a teenager.
He started his career with Eastside after finishing his second tour in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps.
"I’m a North Bend resident, I grew up in Issaquah/Sammamish, I graduated from Issaquah High School—that’s why I chose Eastside Fire. It was my dream agency, the only agency I wanted to work for because I wanted to give back to the same community that gave to me while growing up," said Martinez. "This was a calling to be a firefighter. I see the guys and gals driving by going on calls, and it just tears up my heart every time because I should be doing that."
Martinez, a second lieutenant, two captains and six firefighters are now out of a job because they are not vaccinated against COVID-19. He said they were all placed on leave of absence on Oct. 19.
"They’re losing 167 years of experience with those 10 members leaving," said Martinez.
"The dedication we have for the community, the risk that’s involved working with COVID this entire time safely with PPE, daily testing worked. And so, unfortunately, it feels like this unreasonable choice is being put on top of us. And it’s definitely been emotional for us, because this is not just a job, it’s a calling," said Frank Dahlquist, a captain at Eastside who also lost his job for being unvaccinated.
Martinez was a leader in the agency’s Hazmat Unit. When the COVID-19 outbreak began in 2020, he said he was one of the members to help Eastside get its only transportation unit for COVID positive patients.
"Solely for COVID positive patients. I helped set that up. I worked on that A-car for the entirety of the pandemic until Oct. 19. I was transporting many COVID-positive patients. Not once did I contract COVID positive," said Martinez.
Martinez is a husband and father, and said his parents and grandparents had strong backgrounds in the Catholic and Christian faith. He said his religious exemption was approved, but also said the accommodations he requested to keep his job were denied. Those accommodations included safety measures like wearing a mask at all times, daily COVID testing and social distancing when able.
Martinez said he thought he would spend the rest of his career with Eastside. But when it came down to his Christian beliefs not to get vaccinated and lose his job, he said ultimately his decision came from a higher power.
"He is the one that guides me. He guided me through Iraq and I can’t go against that now. I prayed when this came out. I’ve heard everyone say just get the vaccine, it’s easy and you can go back to work. But I can’t go against God’s will. Not me," said Martinez. "Every important decision, I pray to find out what God wants me to do. He has an ultimate plan for all of us."
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