As the Beverly Hills Fire Department (BHFD) reaches higher levels of vaccination following a Sept. 30 deadline, the department is facing increased resistance from those opposed to the mandate. On Oct. 5, protesters gathered in front of City Hall for a rally against state and county vaccination requirements for BHFD firefighters. While the majority of firefighters have complied with the directive, roughly a fifth of the department has requested religious and medical exemptions.
In a statement over the weekend, BHFD Fire Chief Greg Barton said that nearly 80% of firefighters are vaccinated, up significantly from the 63% reported in August. The city itself has no role in requiring the vaccinations outside of enforcing the mandates. The requirements come from two authorities, the state and county public health departments, both of which have ordered healthcare workers to either get vaccinated or request an exemption.
While not healthcare workers per se, all BHFD firefighters are also certified EMTs and paramedics, qualifying them for the mandates. The orders gave healthcare workers until Sept. 30 to be fully inoculated against COVID-19 or receive an exemption on religious or medical grounds.
“The Beverly Hills Fire Department will make operational adjustments as needed to ensure the greatest level of protection for the community with vaccinated paramedics assigned to engine companies wearing full personal protective equipment when responding on medical calls,” Barton said. “I want to assure every member of this community that our quality of service and your health and safety will not be compromised.”
On Oct. 1, the city announced decisions for the 25 exemption requests. Of the five firefighters seeking medical exemptions, one received a full exemption while the rest were granted 30-day temporary exemptions. None of the 20 seeking exemptions for “sincerely held religious beliefs” received full exemptions. Instead, 14 were given 30-day exemptions and six requests were denied. Five of those denied religious exemptions took the shot, while one has been placed on unpaid administrative leave.
Over the course of the 30-day temporary exemption, those seeking medical exemptions have been asked to provide the city with documentation submitted by their health care provider for further evaluation. The city will meet again with those seeking religious exemptions at the end of the 30-day period to reevaluate their request.
Beverly Hills Firefighter Association President Victor Gutierrez, who helms the union representing the city’s firefighters, described the move as “segregation” and “in disregard to public safety.”
In response to concerns about staffing levels, the department added an additional vaccinated firefighter to each shift.
Gutierrez told the Courier that the union does not oppose the mandates–rather, it opposes removing unvaccinated firefighters from medical calls. Gutierrez pointed out that the county vaccination mandate does not prohibit healthcare workers from working with patients so long as they test regularly for COVID-19 and wear face coverings.
On Oct. 5, over a hundred protesters decried the mandates on the steps of City Hall. The crowd included a number of firefighters from other departments, including Los Angeles, the county, and at least two from Beverly Hills. One BHFD firefighter present, Josh Sattley, had his religious exemption request denied and refused to take the vaccine. As a result, he was placed on unpaid administrative leave.
He came to the front of the crowd accompanied by his family and greeted by chants of “hero.”
“I’m not a hero, I’m just a man who loves God, I’m a man who loves my country, and I’m a man who loves my family,” he said. “I’m being punished because I stood up for what I believe to be right and I’m going to continue to stand up for what I believe to be right.”
Gutierrez also spoke at the rally in support of Sattley. “Please follow our mission, follow Josh. This is all about having a choice and not having that choice stepped on,” he said.
Sattley declined an interview request from the Courier. He has become a vocal critic of the city, characterizing the measures as “draconian and tyrannical” in an Instagram post. He appeared on the conservative news outlet Newsmax on Oct. 5 to discuss the mandates with host Grant Stinchfield.
As with the debate in other areas of life, from schools to hospitals, firefighters in Beverly Hills are already required to receive certain vaccines as a condition of employment, according to Deputy Fire Chief Joe Matsch. Opponents of the vaccine frequently raise concerns with the speed of its development, but legal experts say that such objections would not qualify as religious in nature.