The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City
Aug. 27—The City of Oklahoma City is requiring new recruits of both the police and fire departments be vaccinated, or be willing to be vaccinated, before they are allowed to begin training.
The move will not affect current officers and firefighters. Such a change for existing employees would require negotiation and agreement with the police and fire unions.
“They (the recruits) are not in our bargaining unit yet, so we don’t have any say on whether a department does that or not,” said John George, president of the Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police.
One important motivation in requiring vaccines for recruits is the intensive and time-sensitive training they must go through, officials said. If sickness spreads through the training ranks, it could hold up the departments’ pipeline of new hires and derail the schedule.
“It would just hamper the whole process, which again is very regimented, organized and planned, so that’s something we’d like to avoid if we can for sure,” said Benny Fulkerson, public information officer with the Oklahoma City Fire Department. “Of course, we’ve made the vaccine available to all incumbents from Day One, and it’s still available.”
Both departments are contending with a host of retirements and departures from their ranks over the past year.
For Oklahoma City police, voluntary terminations, including retirement and non-retirement exits, increased by 183% from 2016-17 to 2020-21. Those departures and a city council vote to lift a hiring freeze mean the department has 160 vacant positions. The newest recruit class that began July 9 comprises 25 members.
“Will applicants go somewhere else or not? I don’t know. I hope not, because we’re hurting for applicants and we’re hurting for officers,” George said. “We’re already in a recruiting and retention crisis.”
Currently, the fire and police departments state that 67% and 62%, respectively, of active personnel are vaccinated. However, some employees may have been vaccinated outside of the city’s program.
The hope is that the new requirement will not deter new recruits from joining either force.
“We’ve not had any push back on that at this point and we have not seen any decline in the number of applications as a result,” said Fulkerson. “We’re going to be here until this thing is hopefully over at some point and continue to respond to these calls and just do what we’ve always done.”
There are no active conversations or negations with either union to mandate vaccines for all fire and police personnel, officials said.
CONTRIBUTING: Staff writer JaNae Williams
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