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Portland Airport Fire & Rescue down one-third of its members due to COVID vaccine mandate

The president of the Portland Firefighters' Association expressed concerns with the shortage, from response times to overtime.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The president of the Portland Firefighters' Association is sounding the alarm on possible safety issues after Oregon's vaccine mandate placed more workers on leave. 

Portland Airport Fire & Rescue, run by the Port of Portland, is down one-third of its members, from 41 to 27. All 14 of the firefighters currently on leave are unvaccinated, and although they were granted religious exceptions, the Port said it cannot accommodate those firefighters. 

In the eyes of the firefighters' union, this is a concerning shortage -- with exhausted workers pulling over-time and city firefighters now responding to the airport. Alan Ferschweiler, who leads the Firefighters' Association, said the current crew is stretched too thin.

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"It's not the same level of response — no matter what the Port says. It's not the same level level of response to what was there last week," he said.

Although Portland International Airport (PDX) falls within the city's jurisdiction, Ferschweiler said it's rare for city firefighters to get called out there. 

"I don’t think that anybody who’s going to have a heart attack in a terminal cares who gets there... the Port of Portland has always provided safe passage for people as they come, not just when they are on the plane, but if they are having difficulty breathing or cardiac arrest," Ferschweiler said. They can get behind security and get there within minutes. The city crews — if we have somebody who has a heart attack on the plane and they are going to get off — we have to get through security to be able to do it."

With a shortage of workers, he worries about response times in and around the airport.

"No matter what the cause is — be it the vaccine mandates, or a mass exodus because a bunch of people retire — it's a huge effect on the workforce and the morale of any department," Ferschweiler said. "To lose that much experience in such a short time is really difficult for everybody."

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While the Port of Portland acknowledged there is a burden on the 27 airport firefighters at the station, spokesperson Kama Simonds said the traveling public won't be affected. 

"The airport is not going to lose service or compromise any of the response times to the airfield," she said. 

Although religious exceptions for the 14 were granted, Simonds said those unvaccinated firefighters cannot be accommodated. 

"We respect your choice, however, your job requires that you cohabitate, that you live with others at the station, that you are a first responder and you interact frequently with members of the public, and it is not reasonable to make an accommodation to that exception," Simonds said.

She explained it comes back to this: The airport only has one station. 

"If there was a massive outbreak in the airport fire station, a massive COVID outbreak, there is not another station. If that station closes, then the airport shuts down," said Simonds. "Without an airport fire department, we cannot operate the airport."

The firefighters on leave have until Nov. 30 to get vaccinated. The Port said it's working on a contingency plan to find more workers should the fourteen not return to the station. 

Ferschweiler told KGW News it could be difficult to find workers to fill those positions. 

"I cannot do what the Port firefighters do. They do an extra layer of training  how to save people from a fire if a jet goes down, what happens if a jet lands in the river — I am not trained to do that as a city firefighter," he said. "If you’re an airport firefighter it takes a year, 18 months to be trained to do that. Even as a 20 year veteran for the city, it takes six months to a year for me to learn how to do their operations, so it is not some thing that you can just turn over and get staff that immediate."

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