Clockwise from top left, firefighters Michael Moore, Tyler Smith, Damian Vasquez, and Chris Aringer accuse the Board of Supervisors of acting like Nazis and claim the COVID-19 health crisis isn’t real. | Credit: Courtesy

Talk about whiplash. I’d just finished writing about the superhuman courage and endurance of Santa Barbara firefighters battling the Dixie inferno ― feeling deep respect for a profession whose members run straight into the belly of the beast ― when I heard a few of their colleagues say some incredibly dumb and dangerous things about the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The four firefighters were speaking out Tuesday against a proposal by the County Board of Supervisors to mandate vaccines for all 4,300 county employees, including their department. Leading the resistance was Michael Moore, who, like his documentarian namesake, seems to gravitate toward conspiracy theories.

With bed-head hair, a mask riding below his nose, and an aggressive presentation style which relied on notecards that fell out of order, Moore introduced himself as a 13-year member of the County Fire Department. He made around $300,000 last year in salary and benefits as an engineer, and, like most firefighters, he frequently responds to medical emergencies.

Moore’s opening volley was a lie ripped from fringy right-wing media that the White House, CDC, FDA, Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson don’t require their employees to take the vaccine. That’s simply not true, but it didn’t stop Moore from wagging his finger at the board. “Let that sink in,” he said, pausing for effect. “You are talking about mandating vaccines, yet those companies aren’t even discussing it.” 

Moore, like his compatriots at the Board that day, was most concerned about the proposed requirement infringing upon his freedom as an American. California, he went on earnestly, “is quickly shaping up the way the Nazi regime started.” First, it was “slow the curve,” he said. Now, it’s “show us your papers.” “When’s it going to stop?” he asked. 

I couldn’t help but wonder whether Moore and his buddies actually followed the pandemic’s early curve-flattening protocols that would have helped stamp out outbreaks ― masking up, socially distancing, and limiting contact to your household ― or if they were some of the many who whined about and disregarded the health advisories, perpetuating this cycle of lockdowns they compare to tyranny.

If the Board passed the mandate, Moore concluded, he would consider quitting his job. “If we implement this, I see no difference between how Hitler and the SS ran Germany and how this county is being run,” he declared, trading fist bumps with his friends as he sat back down.

Moore was echoed by fellow firefighter Damian Vasquez, who claimed “there is no public health crisis.” Some people may be “getting an illness and seeking medical care,” he said, but they’re “getting better, for the most part.” I’d love to see Vasquez say that to the families of the 475 Santa Barbarans who have died of COVID, or to the hundreds of others whose lungs and bodies are permanently ravaged by the virus. 

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Firefighters Tyler Smith and Chris Aringer also stood up at the podium and presented their own false talking points ― the media is all propaganda, Big Pharma is pushing an unsafe vaccine for profit, the shot is only 40 percent effective and doesn’t stop infection, etc. ― with a passion and confidence that would have been impressive if it wasn’t so divorced from reality. “It is time we exercise caution and level-headedness,” Smith said, unironically.

Santa Barbara isn’t the only California jurisdiction with fire personnel fighting against the vaccine. Counties up and down the state have been experiencing the same problem. But it’s hardly the majority who are bucking medical science. Most are happy to take the vaccine, but many, as trained paramedics, are also helping overworked doctors and nurses administer them.

So what to do, to steal an expression from the policing side of public safety, about these bad apples? I like the style of the Los Angeles Fire Department, which recently started investigating one of its captains for criticizing the city’s new vaccine mandate in a fiery YouTube video. The department’s biggest concern was that the captain, wearing an LAFD cap and t-shirt, was speaking in an official capacity, not as a private citizen. 

While our four firefighters weren’t wearing their department garb, they clearly presented themselves as public officials and spoke, they claimed, on behalf of others in their ranks. One invoked the union he is a member of. 

If and when these guys speak out again after our local mandate is passed ― which will likely take place this Tuesday ― I hope Santa Barbara fire leaders take a hard look at what they say and how they say it. Because it makes them all look bad when a vocal few compare a simple health requirement to fascism and genocide, and it undermines our confidence in their ability to protect us, especially in a medical situation.

And to Moore, I hope you put your money where your big mouth is and do wind up quitting. There are plenty of smarter men and women waiting in the academy wings to take your place. Also, the next time you address the Board ― because I’m sure you won’t be able to help yourself ― maybe comb your hair. Or at least put on a hat. Just not a County Fire hat. You don’t speak for all of them.

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