A Cariboo Regional District workplace policy requiring employees and volunteer firefighters be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 remains in place, following a special board vote last week.
CRD directors had previously voted to recommend Chief Administrative Officer John MacLean delay the implementation of the policy by up to two months. However, following a lengthy in-camera meeting Jan. 19, directors voted against the deferral.
The initial recommendation to defer the policy followed concerns from a few fire halls in the region who said the vaccine requirement would impact their staffing levels and ability to serve the community. Earlier this month, the Lone Butte fire chief posted online that theirhall would no longer respond to medical calls, due to staffing shortages.
A petition launched earlier this month calling on the CRD to exempt volunteer firefighters from the policy had more than 3,000 signatures.
In a release last week, however, the CRD stated that 90 per cent of volunteer firefighters at the 14 halls in the region were in compliance with the vaccine policy. An update on the CRD’s website, under ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ about the requirement, listed that figure as between 80 and 90 per cent.
Chris Keam, CRD’s manager of communications, said directors, fire chiefs and protective services staff have noted an increase in new applicants to fire halls in the region, though the exact number was not available.
“We are seeing an uptick in volunteer applications across the region, as vaccine-supportive Cariboo residents are coming out to ensure their local halls have the roster strength needed to protect lives and property in their area,” Keam said.
Keam also said the Kersley Volunteer Fire Department had “sufficient members who have met the vaccine requirement” to respond to calls. Last week, the sign outside of the Kersley hall, south of Quesnel, said the hall was closed.
According to the new information this week on the CRD website, the vaccine policy was implemented to minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
The update states the CRD considered implementing rapid testing for volunteer firefighters as an alternative to the policy, but decided against itbecause “rapid tests have a moderate level of failure, rapid tests are difficult to source and are expensive, and managing the administration and reporting of daily rapid testing would be resource-intensive and a hardship to the CRD.”
The FAQ also states that while CRD firefighters are “volunteer” they are considered employees for the purposes of coverage under WorkSafeBC and the CRD’s liability insurance.
“That means that the CRD must maintain coverage for them and is liable for any negligence caused by them,” the post states, noting the CRD is liable if a volunteer firefighter were to cause injury to a member of the public.
The policy is not permanent, the post states. “As soon as the CRD determines the policy is no longer necessary for healthy and safety purposes, it will be ended.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information from the CRD.