(The Center Square) – Spokane City Councilors Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle joined a small welcome ceremony for a dozen firefighters who returned to work this week. The emergency responders were forced out of their positions last year after refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine as mandated by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Health.
“It was just a great opportunity to support our emergency responders,” said Cathcart of the community-organized event on Wednesday outside of Spokane Fire Station No. 8. “They are back to doing what they love right now and what the community needs.”
He and Bingle had been trying for months to bring back as many of the 25 firefighters as possible. These staffers had either been reassigned to another position or had left the city’s employment.
“Before the vaccine, our firefighters were seen as heroes and then they were portrayed by some as villains because of their sincerely held beliefs against getting the vaccine – so it is nice to have them restored as the heroes they are,” said Bingle.
The city’s overtime costs for the fire department are expected to top $7 million by the end of the year due to a workforce shortage. Bingle and Cathcart saw the immediate return of trained and skilled professionals as necessary budgetarily and for public safety.
Although they could not convince the council majority to act on resolutions to bring the firefighters back, Cathcart said that opportunity became possible when Inslee ended the vaccine requirement at the end of October.
Not all of the displaced firefighters were available to return, said Bingle. He said some had found other jobs and were satisfied to stay put, although he is hopeful that more ex-staffers can be persuaded to return.
“These firefighters were just discarded – it was gross,” he said.
The cost of a fire academy is about $500,000, he said, so having firefighters who are already trained back on the roster is a significant savings. He said there is still a manpower shortage of about 50 firefighters in the department with about 300 employees, but the council has approved extra academy funding for each of the next two years to fill the gap.
Bingle said the after-effects of Inslee’s response to the pandemic brings many societal lessons. He strongly opposed the mandate forcing people to wear facial coverings and, in fact, was censured by the council majority for noncompliance on city property during first month in office.
“Somebody’s got to stand,” he said.
His own experience defying a mandate made it that much more gratifying to welcome back the local firefighters this week, Bingle said.