Mass. fire chief denies firefighters swine flu shots

By Shawn Regan
The Eagle-Tribune

HAVERHILL, Mass. — Fire Chief Richard Borden ordered the city's nurse not to give the H1N1 vaccine to his firefighters yesterday, partly because his deputies didn't check with him first.

The city received a round of vaccinations for the highly-contagious swine flu to give out to public safety officials. Police officers began receiving their shots last week, but Sue Najuch, the city's public health nurse, was told by Borden yesterday to withhold the vaccine from firefighters — just as some were heading over to City Hall to be inoculated.

"We got a call this morning from the city's public health nurse that she has the vaccine for the firefighters," Paul Weinburgh, president of the firefighters union, said yesterday. "The deputies started sending the men over to City Hall to get their shots this morning. But the chief stopped it. The nurse said the chief ordered her not to give the vaccine to any firefighters."

Najuch could not be reached. However, her boss, Human Services Director Vincent Ouellette, confirmed Weinburgh's claim.

"The chief stopped her from giving the vaccine to firefighters," Ouellette said. "He told her he had it (providing the H1N1 vaccine to firefighters) taken care of."

Reached yesterday afternoon, Borden said the dispute is the result of a misunderstanding, combined with his deputies acting inappropriately without checking with him first.

The chief said he has previously arranged with the state Department of Public Health for enough vaccines for his department's emergency medical technicians. It was unclear whether the state was going to be able to provide enough vaccine for all his firefighters, Borden said.

So, he said his plan was to use the unexpected city shipment for non-EMTs, for whom vaccine coverage had not yet been worked out.

"The deputies should not have broadcast that we had shots and started sending people over there without checking with me first," Borden said. "Everyone who wants a shot will get one, but it may not be in the order they want it."

Weinburgh said there are only three firefighters who are not EMTs.

"Are you telling me he has denied us all the vaccine so he can give it to three other firefighters first?" Weinburgh said when told about the chief's explanation. "I can't imagine why he wouldn't want his men to have the vaccine as soon as it is available. In my opinion it's about control. He's mad the deputies sent us over (for shots) before he had a chance to do it."

Weinburgh said he spoke to Mayor James Fiorentini about the situation yesterday afternoon. Weinburgh said the mayor agreed with him that the firefighters should have been given the vaccine as soon as it was available. Fiorentini did not return messages to comment for this story.

The union and Borden have been feuding over several issues, including the chief's decision to put GPS devices in firetrucks to monitor their locations. Weinburgh likened it to "Big Brother" watching. The union and mayor have also been arguing over issues like the possible closure of the Bradford fire station.

Police Deputy Chief Donald Thompson said many police officers got the swine flu shot Oct. 5. He also said the officers have the option of getting the vaccine today or Thursday.

Copyright 2009

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