Blindsided: Three former Wyoming firefighters tell their story

A tow truck operator from Preferred Towing watches as Pumper No. 1 from the Wyoming department is righted. The vehicle slid into a ditch responding to a pick up truck on fire in a soybean field on London Line . A lawsuit has now been settled between one of the firefighters involved who had been fired by former Chief, Steve Clemens.

Carrie Ann Wilson had hoped the truth would prevail and changes would be made at the Wyoming fire department. Instead, the former volunteer firefighter and two of her coworkers were fired in what lawyers say was a case of wrongful dismissal.

Feb. 12, Fire Chief Steve Clemens confirmed to The Independent three veteran firefighters, Wilson – a lieutenant , Sr. Firefighter Jason Lyon and District Chief Jeff Scott were dismissed after two investigations into what at the time he called workplace health and safety issues.

The dismissals ignited anger within the department. Four firefighters resigned and retired immediately after the dismissals. Since then, 16 firefighters have left the Wyoming station at least eight because of this incident.

Wilson, Lyon and Scott have never spoke publicly about their firing, until this week when their lawyers issued a news release.

The lawyers, Matthew Chapman and William Fawcett say in August, Wilson was physically assaulted by another firefighter who the lawyers name as Pete Moraal.

Moraal, who is also lieutenant with the department, is a long-time volunteer firefighter, teaches at Lambton College’s Fire School and in 2014 was awarded the Governor General’s Fire Service Exemplary Service Medal given to firefighters for 20 years service.

Wilson alleges Moraal was questioning some of her decisions at the scene while she was incident commander. During the exchange, she told him to take his complaints to the district fire chief, who was already on scene. Wilson says “he walked right through me” shoving her out of the way with his shoulder.

Wilson says she wasn’t injured and didn’t say anything about it at the time.

Then in September, Wilson was the incident commander near Reece’s Corners, when a stolen truck caught fire in a field. On the way to the burning vehicle, the pumper slid into a creek beside a laneway.

“It was extremely traumatic. My window was down. Those windows are very large. And I knew I didn’t have my seat belt on,” she told The Independent Tuesday.

“And all I had going through my head was I had to stay in the truck or I would be killed,” she said her voice breaking with emotion.

“I somehow managed to stay in that truck without falling out or being pinned underneath it.”

Wilson did a quick check to see how everyone was – the driver was “dangling above me.” No one was critically injured.

She says she tried to call 9-1-1, but the radio wasn’t working.

“I had to find my phone, which was floating in the ditch, to call 911 to explain what had happened.”

OPP officers on the scene helped free the firefighters.

“We got down on the ground and there was some pretty big bumps and bruises and made sure that my men were okay.”

Wilson says Moraal arrived on the scene and was angry to see the pumper in the ditch saying it was an expensive piece of equipment. Wilson told him he should be more concerned about the firefighters.

“We were both face-to-face by that point. He was then yelling about the truck that was on fire and why we weren’t putting that out. I explained that it was just going to burn out. He yelled at me about who was IC and who was in charge of this. And I screamed, I was very agitated at that point, and yelled that it was my call. I was in charge. I was IC and I was leaving it to burn. And it was at that point that other firefighters stepped in to physically pull him back. And I left the situation.”

Lyon, who was on the scene and took command at Wilson’s request, says he also had to ask Moraal to step away from the scene several times.

And he says, he told the chief about the incident minutes after it happened.

The two incidents became the subject of an investigation by Darcy Michaud of HRprimed in December at an officers’ meeting where Capt. Mike McGrail made a comment about the two confrontations.

The lawyers say the investigator had “an appearance of being coopted toward scrutinizing members of the fire department who had clashed with Chief Steve Clemens since his hiring in late 2016.”

The three all spoke up about a webcam found in the radio room of the Wyoming station in 2017.

Wilson was one of the people who had initially discovered it. Wilson says she was uncomfortable with it being there and would move it or put a post-it note over top of the camera whenever she was in the room.

Wilson thought the webcam had been taken down, but when she moved the computer, she could see video of herself. She found the camera behind a printer and raised her concerns with the fire executive suggesting what was done may have violated Canada’s Criminal Code.

District Chief Jeff Scott also raised the red flag with the town’s CAO. “I found out about it one evening (on the weekend of the firefighters annual Bacon Burgers event) and then I got ahold of the CAO the following morning. And she initiated the investigation into this camera that following morning.”

Clemens was placed on leave, but exonerated by the report on the incident. When he returned to work, both Wilson and Lyon say they had lost trust in his leadership.

Scott, on the other hand, says he was willing to work with Clemens, although he would frequently voice his opinions about some of the chief’s plans. Scott says Clemen’s did a “marvelous job” on the administrative end of amalgamating Camlachie and Wyoming into one department, but wanted to start programs without guidelines or instructions to firefighters.

“If I disagreed with him, I was certainly going to tell him and I would, and back it up with sound reasoning in my own mind about why I disagreed with him. But at the same time, he is the chief; if that’s what he wants done, that’s what gets done.”

All three firefighters were interviewed in 2019-2020 in one of the two investigations which flowed from Wilson’s allegations of verbal and physical abuse. Wilson was interviewed for the second investigation as well.

The three were asked about their relationship to the former Wyoming chief, Mike Vasey, something Lyon says raised a red flag.

On Feb. 11, Lyon was called into the department by Clemens. The human resources director from the County of Lambton slid an envelop across the table with his termination papers.

“I regret to inform you the Town of Plympton-Wyoming and the Plympton-Wyoming Fire Department doesn’t see you as a good fit going forward. Your employment will be terminated effective immediately,” the letter said. Lyon pressed for an answer.

“‘How am I not a good fit?’” asked Lyon who is a paramedic. “I demanded an answer from Steve Clemens who did not keep eye contact. He put his head to the ground and not once during this would make eye contact; this after 26 years. You owe me an explanation. HR official says ‘No we don’t. We don’t have to give you a reason, this meeting is done.’”

Lyon left, giving Wilson a heads up to what was coming.

“Prior to Jason’s phone call, I guess I still had a flicker of hope that the right things were being done in my opinion…So when I showed up, it was the chief and human resource (officer) from the county. And I knew instantly that I was being fired. They had an envelope sitting there and they pushed it across the desk. And I knew instantly in my gut that this was the end.”

Scott, a truck driver, was on the road when Clemens called him in for an interview. He told Scott at the time two people had been fired. Scott asked if he was being fired and the chief told him no.

When he arrived at the station Feb. 11 at 8:30 pm, he too, had a termination letter waiting for him. And he says he was blindsided.

“I had seen screenshots where he (Clemens) had been googling things like upward bullying and upward harassment, you know, in a power struggle between the chief and the deputy. And so I was aware that he was maybe looking into things like this, but I was not aware of that this was the route that was going to be taken.”

After the firings, more senior officers and firefighters left, some after being disaplined as a result of the report.

Lawyers say in March, 27 members of the service submitted a letter to Mayor Lonny Napper and council raising concerns about Clemens’ leadership, the poisonous environment created in the department and their concerns the fire department would not be able to function well in the current situation.

That letter has never been dealt with publicly.

Fawcett says there no wrongful dismissal claim is filed now but it is pending. None of the firefighters statements have been tested in court. He wouldn’t comment on whether more talks were pending with the municipality.

The Independent did request a statement from the Town of Plympton-Wyoming. CAO Carolyn Tripp says the town doesn’t comment on human resource issues.

Tuesday, The Independent tried to contact Lt. Pete Moraal. He was not immediately available for comment.

In an interview with The Sarnia Observer Friday, he suggested the incidents raised by Wilson and Lyon did not occur as they suggested.

Meantime, Wilson, Lyon and Scott are still dealing with the fallout.

Scott says his family still gets asked why he was fired by complete strangers. And he says, the dismissal may put an end to his dream of being a fire chief some day.

Lyon is angry and sad since he’s been ordered not to set foot on fire department property. It used to be a place where his family volunteered together.

He finds it even harder to square his dismissal with the history of his family in the service. His grandfather was a firefighter for 27 years. He says it was hard to explain “especially … to my dad, like, you know, you always want to do right by the father, right. And I got to tell them this? It did not sit well. And the more I thought about it, the more I’m like, ‘No, this is not right. I’m not taking this lying down’ and hence we are now.”

Both Lyon and Scott were willing to tell there stories earlier, but the dismissal has shaken Wilson deeply. She says she felt like a role model for young girls in the community and took that seriously.

“This has broken me and it’s taken a lot to be able to have the strength to sit here and do this – to tell the facts and the truth.

“It wasn’t something I was capable of doing in the beginning,” she says as tears roll down her face.

“In my heart, I had hoped that the truth would prevail, and there would be changes made. But I guess in my gut, I kind of always really questioned all of it.”

And the trio miss the bond of being part of the fire family. Lyon felt he had many more years to give the Wyoming department as their medical trainer. Scott hoped one day to be chief. And Wilson simply misses helping the community.

“I miss the men I miss being able to help I miss being able to be there for people on their darkest days and know that I was a glimmer of hope…I felt that I was able to help and I take honor in being able to have been able to do that for so many people.”