Rantz: Seattle Police, Fire staffing critically low and the vaccinated are getting COVID

Dec 21, 2021, 10:12 PM | Updated: Dec 22, 2021, 11:56 am
seattle responders, police and fire, staffing...
(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Seattle Police and Fire are still dangerously understaffed, COVID is spreading amongst some staff, and city residents are not fully protected. The city refuses to budge on its vaccine mandate, even as it brings back policies previously used to accommodate staff before the vaccine was available.

The SPD has hundreds of open shifts across every precinct in the city. In one precinct alone, it is down officers in nearly 100 shifts between now and the end of the year. When you remove new hires and recruits who are not patrol-ready, updated staffing numbers from last week show only 888 total deployable officers.

Meanwhile, the situation is so dire with the Seattle Fire Department, the city just had to turn six units offline and convert engines into aid units. Despite a deployable staff in full compliance with the city’s vaccine mandate, SFD had recent COVID cases that forced the department to return to the very procedures the city claimed it couldn’t use to protect the unvaccinated.

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The police staffing nightmare

As a result of historic officer separations and a COVID vaccine mandate that sidelined nearly 100 officers, the SPD has struggled to meet basic staffing minimums. These minimums are based on what they think is enough staff to keep both the public and officers safe on any given shift.

There are dozens of open shifts asking non-patrol officers, like detectives, to volunteer for open shifts. There isn’t a single watch or precinct in Seattle that is able to meet minimum staffing without augmenting patrols.

In the Southwest Precinct alone, between Dec. 20 and Dec. 31, both the 2nd and 3rd Watch are down officers in nearly 100 shifts.


Seattle Fire makes drastic staffing move

The SFD was down 19 staff on Saturday, Dec. 18, forcing the city into drastic cuts to service.

The department removed two aid cars, one ladder truck, two engines, and one air unit from service as a result. But they also had to change the configuration of other units to keep the department from semi-functioning. SFD took three engines that are regularly staffed with four firefighter/EMTs and converted them to aid cars staffed with two firefighter/EMTs.

A source from SFD warned that aid cars “are not equipped with the personnel or the equipment to make a rescue or extinguish the fire.”

While a spokesperson with SFD confirmed all of these details, she noted “the members staffing those units carry their turnout gear and can respond to fires with other units.”

“[If] a fire were to occur in one of those districts staffed instead with an aid car, the closest engine company(s) and truck(s) would respond in to help cover that area,” the spokesperson said in an email to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

The spokesperson attributed the staff shortage to “employees being out on leave (sick leave, vacation leave, extended leave, etc.), retirements and special events.” She acknowledges that the vaccine mandate is playing a role in the staffing shortage, but “it would not be accurate to attribute all of our understaffing to the mandate, as we had to occasionally put rigs out of service before the mandate deadline passed in October.”

Prior to the mandate, SFD suffered a staffing shortage. The vaccine mandate made it worse. It appears to have been for naught.

COVID spreads and old procedures return to SFD as omicron hits

Even though the remaining SFD staff is fully compliant with the vaccine mandate, staff are still getting COVID.

Eight SFD personnel tested positive for COVID-19 in November 2021. According to a public disclosure request, all eight were vaccinated.

Omicron is now the dominant COVID variant in the United States. While studies and anecdotal evidence suggest omicron is significantly less dangerous than delta, leading to symptoms of a mild cold in most people, it’s more contagious. More troublesome from a staffing perspective, omicron appears to evade our vaccines.

Consequently, the SFD instituted new measures to protect staff from omicron. It’s going back to policies adopted early in the pandemic.

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New SFD procedures ruffle feathers

SFD Chief Harold Scoggins detailed a return to old procedures in a Dec. 17 memo. It reads (in part):

To protect each other, effective immediately, members should return to the level of vigilance that was exercised in the earliest days of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Masking and social distancing are crucial. In addition, members are also authorized and encouraged to use the POCCT tests in the Station at the start of each shift to add another layer of protection. These tests are offered on a voluntary basis and not a substitute for masking and distancing. No test is perfect, but the POCCT tests detect contagious people close to 80% of the time.

This memo is not sitting well with some vaccinated and unvaccinated firefighters.

To justify terminating firefighters who did not comply with the vaccine mandate, staff were told these very policies could not be a substitute for the unvaccinated.

But if omicron evades the vaccine and the best protection, according to the city, and the department is to abide by procedures used before a vaccine was even available, then what sense did it make to fire unvaccinated staff? They’re just as vulnerable to the dominant variant as the vaccinated.

Unethical negotiation strategy with the union?

The city is negotiating with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) over what to do with the sidelined officers who were denied accommodation requests to avoid the vaccine.

One source tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that Mayor Jenny Durkan is not considering a move to allow for frequent testing for those who do not wish to be vaccinated, even though that option was available before her mandate.

Seattle city leaders have also refused to meet for a collective bargaining session until late this week, according to another source who spoke to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. It is an apparent move to pressure officers who are burning through accrued sick or vacation time as they wait to see if SPOG can strike a deal.

If they run out of time off and do not yet have a job to lateral to another department, the officers may give in and submit their paperwork. While that ensures their return to work, it could also result in significant resentment. They could leave the department as soon as they’re offered another position in another department.

Meanwhile, firefighters are reportedly still being fired. One source tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that some firefighters are on disability to treat medical issues that occurred on the job. Once they get off disability, if not vaccinated, they’re being terminated.

Radio silence from city and media

Despite a clear and worsening crisis, city leaders are saying virtually nothing.

Durkan is leaving Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell a staffing crisis to contend with on day one. If he sticks with comments made on the campaign trail, Harrell will not walk back the mandate.

Seattle media is as silent as city leaders.

Local television stations and newspapers remain mostly silent on the crisis. Generally speaking, Seattle media members either do not understand staffing at either SPD or SFD, do not have sources to provide the information, or simply don’t mind a shortage (particularly when it’s occurring at the SPD).

By not shining a spotlight on the crisis, local outlets are missing an opportunity to put public pressure on city leaders to address the crisis. We’re one public safety emergency away from a catastrophic result. It’s too bad no one seems very interested except police, firefighters, EMTs, and staff at KTTH.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3–6 pm on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Facebook. Check back frequently for more news and analysis.


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Rantz: Seattle Police, Fire staffing critically low and the vaccinated are getting COVID