EDMONTON -- Edmonton’s fire chief is asking the province to allow firefighters access to the COVID-19 vaccine as a growing number of them contract COVID-19 and overtime costs soar to $1 million.

Fire Chief Joe Zatylny told CTV News Edmonton in an interview Monday that 65 out of Edmonton fire’s 1,300 members have tested positive for COVID-19.

That has led to 4,500 shift absences forcing firefighters who are healthy to have over 1,000 overtime shifts.

Overtime shifts have costed Edmonton fire approximately $1 million.

“These absences have posed significant challenges to maintaining our operational staffing levels,” Zatylny said. “Vaccinating firefighters is important to maintaining everyone’s safety and the continuing integrity of the service we provide."

While all firefighters who have had COVID-19 have recovered "well," the fire chief says the rise of variants of concern cases in Alberta and that firefighters respond to situations where people are suspected to have COVID-19, are asymptomatic or are quarantining with the virus are all reasons firefighters should have access to the vaccine.

“Even when somebody is testing positive or exhibiting symptoms we still respond and attend those calls,” he said.

“Edmonton firefighters are a critical part of the pre-hospital health-care team dealing with the pandemic in the Edmonton Zone.”

According to Zatylny, firefighters are first on scene before EMS in nearly 40 per cent of about 40,000 medical calls in the Edmonton Zone last year.

“Because we are not designated as emergency medical responders we were excluded from prioritized vaccination lists,” he said.

“Vaccinating firefighters is not just about keeping firefighters safe, it’s about keeping the public safe as well.”

Zatylny said that the pandemic has forced Edmonton fire to change how it conducts its operations completely.

This includes postponing station transfers, no longer allowing joint meals, implementing physical distancing and heightened sanitation protocols at fire halls.

Additionally, fire dispatch has been split into two locations to ensure staff remain physically distanced.

Despite all these and other precautions, Zatylny said there are still significant COVID-19 transmissions occurring.

“We still see increasing significant risks based on this unprecedented situation,” he said.

Both British Columbia and Saskatchewan have designated firefighters as part of their vaccine rollout plan.

The Calgary Firefighters Association recently initiated a petition to the provincial government to include firefighters as part of the province’s Phase 2C vaccine rollout priority list.

Phase 2C of the vaccine rollout plan began Monday, health-care workers providing in-person direct patient care age 18 and older being able to book appointments for their vaccination.

“It’s time that our firefighters in Alberta receive that treatment as they’re at the same risk as people who have already been accounted for in this vaccine rollout phase plan.”