The City of St. Albert is responding to allegations that two of its deputy fire chiefs got vaccinated for COVID-19 while the province and first responders are facing a vaccine shortage.
Warren Gresik, president of the IAFF Local 2130 representing St. Albert firefighters, told the Gazette the union received complaints in January that two deputy chiefs had received vaccinations that were reserved for front-line workers. Gresik alleged deputy fire chiefs do not regularly respond to calls and are therefore not considered frontline workers.
Gresik first spoke with the Edmonton Journal about the deputy chiefs in a story released this morning.
St. Albert has a fire service integrated with the paramedic service, and most firefighters are also advanced care paramedics. The team responds to both fire calls and health emergencies in the city.
Kerry Hilts, deputy chief administrative officer for the City of St. Albert, said in a statement to the Gazette that the city has one permanent fire chief, three permanent deputy chiefs for operations, administration, and public safety and logistics, two temporary deputy chief positions that were added due to the pandemic, and one permanent assistant chief in charge of medical liaison.
Hilts confirmed the city knows of an allegation that some fire leadership staff received the vaccine, but could not confirm whether that was true.
Six of the seven leadership positions cited above have the necessary paramedic certification go into the field to respond to calls, Hilts said.
"The Fire Chief and Deputy Chiefs are always at a state of readiness to go into the field and have been called out to the field when necessary. Fire Leadership have the necessary paramedic certification to be able to respond when called upon. The only exception is the temporary assignment involving administrative duties – that Deputy Chief is normally in HR, does not have paramedic certification and would never go into the field," Hilts said.
Alberta Health Services has paramedics and emergency medical responders listed as eligible for the vaccine starting in phase 1a of the provincial roll-out, which began in January.
Gresik said in one instance, several firefighters saw a deputy chief getting a shot while they were waiting in line to get their own vaccinations. In another, a member overheard one of the deputy chiefs telling someone they had received the vaccination.
Gresik said the firefighters in the union were disappointed some of the deputy chiefs received the vaccination while front-line workers haven't been able to get theirs despite continuing to respond to emergency calls.
"They were quite frustrated and upset," Gresik said.
"We have had members test positive for COVID-19. It is a reality in our everyday lives and we show up for work. We do everything we can to mitigate the risks."
Hilts wrote that the situation can be frustrating and confusing for employees as well as members of the public, and the city wanted to clear up any confusion and make sure its staff were aware of city expectations.
"There is a lot of confusion over the vaccination rollout. We think every person is making the best decision they can under the circumstances. We believe that only eligible staff should be getting the vaccination and have made that clear to our staff," Hilts said.
"The City of St. Albert supports the vaccination of eligible employees as AHS identifies key groups and populations for immunizations. We do not support any of our staff getting a vaccine before they are eligible to do so."
Gresik said the union sent an email to St. Albert Fire Chief Bernd Gretzinger 10 days ago asking to have a conversation about the deputy chiefs getting the vaccination but has had no response yet. Firefighters have received a response from the City of St. Albert, but Gresik said it wasn't addressed to the union that first brought the issue to their attention. Gresik did not disclose what was in the response.
"We feel that the membership deserves an apology. We tried to articulate that but were never provided a forum to do so. It's unfortunate," Gresik said.
Hilts stated the city would not comment on any individual situation, as the disclosure of individual personal immunization would be a violation of privacy legislation.
"The City’s position is to encourage our staff to get the vaccination but only when they are eligible to do so. The City is not involved in determining eligibility or in administering the vaccine," Hilts said.
If staff are uncertain about whether they meet the criteria for a vaccine, Hilts said they have asked them to discuss it with the Director of Emergency Services.
St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron said in an emailed statement that council is not involved in any of the city's staffing or personnel issues.
"As this question relates to a staff matter, Council will not be providing any comment," Heron stated.
On the St. Albert Chat Facebook page, however, Heron told a commenter the city was investigating.
"Although they are considered front line as they are paramedics I think it was a very poor decision to get vaccinated ahead of those that are actually providing front line services every day," Heron wrote from her personal account.
"A leader looks out for those in their charge first. The city is investigating."
When asked if the city is investigating the issue or if there are going to be consequences for the actions, spokesperson Cory Sinclair said the city has told staff of their expectations on who should receive the vaccine.
"The city has communicated to staff our expectation that only eligible staff receive the vaccination."
Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette