In a recorded vote, regularly tested Fire and Rescue volunteers permitted to answer calls

(Gazette file photo)

SARAH WILLIAMS

STAFF WRITER

Unvaccinated volunteers that answer the call for emergency situations in Prince Edward County will continue to be able to do so provided they test negative for COVID-19 on a regular basis.

During the November 23rd Regular Council Meeting, Prince Edward County Council received a Report from the Deputy Fire Chief detailing the implications of the mandatory municipal COVID-19 vaccination policy on the volunteer contingent of the fire department.

As per the report the provincial government has applied extra restrictions to those who are identified as health care professionals, including but not limited to early access to vaccination and boosters, and more recently requirements to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus when in high- risk settings.

The above requirements apply to those who work in a hospital, long term care facility, licensed retirement home and/or group home housing vulnerable residents and those fire fighters deemed medical first responders.

With this in mind, municipal staff recommended that the mandatory vaccination policy be applied to all firefighters-not only those deemed first responders-as any firefighter could be called upon to provide medical services to someone in an emergency situation.

Staff recommendations include directives to amend the Corporation of the County of Prince Edward Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Policy to include volunteer firefighters and to place non-vaccinated volunteer firefighters on a temporary leave of absence from attending first response calls until they become fully vaccinated.

Concerned citizen, Sarah Sparks, spoke to council regarding these recommendations on behalf of herself and several neighbours.

“The first point they wanted to make is, by placing these non-declared firefighters on leave, stations 5, 8 and 9 in Ameliasburgh, Carrying Place, Rossmore and Rednersville Road will lose 5 out of 25 of our first responders which represents 20 per cent of our contingent and 80 years of experience,” said Sparks.

Among that contingent of unvaccinated volunteer firefighters are two captains and an ex-paramedic.

Ernie Margetson. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

“So, our neighbours got together and wanted to address this, and share our perspective,” she said.

Sparks continued by reading a letter penned to Mayor Ferguson and councillors.

“As homeowners, business owners, taxpayers and voters in the Redersnville Road area, we’re very disturbed to hear council is considering the forced reduction by as much as 20 per cent of our emergency response team,” read Sparks. “These are some of the most frequent responders to our critical calls locally. We live in an area with elderly neighbours and open farmland. Access to as many emergency and fire responders as possible is critical to the wellbeing of our community. For some reason, council is being asked to believe that a person holding a hose to save a burning home or barn is a life-threatening risk to the homeowner if the fire person has chosen not to disclose their private medical history. That seems ludicrous and we question the motives behind such a detrimental motion.”

Sparks continued by noting the importance of time in an emergency situation, indicating that having a robust pool of local first responders to draw from would be prudent.

“To reduce the number of resources we pay for with our taxes and to reduce the chances of our loved ones’ survival based on a responders medical history seems negligent and almost criminal,” Spark argued.

She then implored council to picture a loved one “lying unresponsive on the floor” and to hold that picture in their minds.

“Do you really care if the person going in to save them has had a shot or not? When our community suffers a loss, how in the name of all that is good will you be able to look at the surviving family members and say, ‘I knew the risks and I still chose to eliminate the resources that could have save them.’ We know it is in the mayor and council’s pervue to deny this motion in it’s current form and send it back for a better solution, a solution that retains the integrity of our emergency response services.”

Morally, stated Sparks, and ever mindful that you are elected officials you really have no option but to deny the motion and ask for a different better solution.

“Intelligent people can rise to the challenge of a workable solution that addresses concern and retains services,” she added.

Council Janice Maynard spoke to Sparks, commenting on how the need to balance the risks of COVID-19 with those posed in an emergency situation could make the difference between life or death for those in need of the services of a first responder.

“If we’re to boil it down, the most salient point is in a crisis we don’t care,” said Maynard. “That we will balance the risks of having the first available person to respond to that emergency. I took that sentence to heart….that in a crisis situation, we really don’t care whether they are vaccinated or not.”

“The thing to keep in mind,” responded Sparks, “is the medical responders are only there until the ambulance comes. It’s a stop gap until the fully vaccinated paramedics arrive. We just want them there to start treatment.”

Councillor Andreas Bolik thanked Sparks and expressed frustration that the issue had been brought forth by staff.

“Thank you for bringing this forward and showing the common sense I know is all along Rednersville Road and for basically expressing my views on what we’re looking at,” said Bolik. “Frankly I’m surprised we’re facing this question again having looked at it not long ago and I’m somewhat disappointed staff has brought it forward. I’m amazed you and everyone that signed that letter pulled it together in three days.”

In their report, staff identified possible loss of municipal services as a risk. However, to avoid this, they noted the municipality is continually recruiting new volunteers and that some who are currently unvaccinated may choose to vaccinate rather than be placed on a temporary leave.

Councillor Ernie Margetson put forward a motion that would allow unvaccinated volunteer firefighters to keep their role by providing a negative Covid-19 test at a frequency deemed acceptable. This amendment passed 7-5 in a recorded vote.