In the small Worcester County town of Phillipston, tensions between the town and the fire department have simmered below the surface for years.
But, a recent claim of sexual harassment against the captain ignited old animosities and factions and led nearly a third of the department’s force to resign in a matter of weeks.
Since early December seven of the town’s fire department personnel, including six firefighters and EMTs, turned in resignation letters, citing concerns that range from lack of leadership to fearing for their safety.
A review of those letters reveals a work environment that some characterized as “unprofessional” and “hostile,” particularly toward the female members of the department.
25 Investigates sat down for on-camera interviews with five of the individuals who resigned. A woman who asked not to be identified spoke to us by phone. All described a toxic situation inside the department and they point the finger at the captain.
“He addresses me and says ‘Oh, I think she's a stripper. She's a stripper and I can't wait until she gets to this department and starts needing training because I will be the one to be training,’” recalls Amanda Griffith, a firefighter and EMT, referring to the sexually charged comments she says her boss, Capt. John Seamon Jr., made about a new female hire. “I was appalled, absolutely appalled. It was a shock to me to hear that.”
Griffith, who became emotional during the interview, added that as a female in the male-dominated fire industry hearing those comments was especially difficult and humiliating.
She hails from a long line of firefighters including her mother, grandfather, brother and sister. Griffith filed a formal complaint with the town in mid-December and resigned late last month after six years on the job.
The female firefighter at the center of the comments also quit, stating in her resignation letter that she is “deeply embarrassed and angry" and "feels violated by the comments."
Kristin Stanley, the department’s administrative assistant, says that following Capt. Seamon’s comments, she no longer felt safe working with him, given the two often worked alone in the fire station.
"His conduct was very unleaderly-like, and very threatening to me as a female,” said Stanley, who resigned on December 31. “It wasn’t directed towards me, but because I am a woman I felt unsafe around him.”
Stanley’s and Griffith’s male colleagues rallied around them and resigned in support. Many of them also expressed concerns of their own related to Seamon Jr.
Tyler Mason, who until December 31 was lieutenant of the fire department, resigned because he felt Capt. Seamon’s comments and behavior had “created a very unsafe work environment due to the lack of trust and confidence that many members now feel.”
In his resignation letter, Mason wrote:
"Captain Seamon’s conduct has prevented any cohesion among the members, a very unsafe situation for those tasked with saving lives. With the resignations of so many senior members, the Department is stripped of critical EMTs, firefighters, and drivers needed to lead, to treat patients and to save property."
Anthony Jones, a firefighter and EMT, also cited concern for the safety of his colleagues as one of the reasons for leaving the Phillipston Fire Department. He handed in his resignation on December 19.
“The lack of leadership certainly made an unsafe condition for, in my opinion and it's just my opinion, for anyone that works in this department,” said Jones. “This behavior can't and should not be condoned by anyone in any workplace let alone in a public safety setting where you really have to rely on the person you are working with because it literally may be the difference between going home or not.”
Things at the fire department were not always this difficult, according to the group. They say problems began to spiral out of control in late November, when Fire Chief Richard Stevens went out on medical leave, leaving a void at the top.
“When Chief Stevens was in there when he had issues before he addressed the problem right away and took care of it, “said Lawrence Bankowski, former Deputy Fire Chief, who resigned on January 3.
In the chief’s absence, the group took their concerns to town hall. But, they say, their concerns have gone largely ignored by the town.
“The selectmen nor the Chief Administrator they don't seem to be doing anything about what’s going on. They're just trying to push it under the rug,” added Bankowski.
We spoke with Phillipston’s Chief Administrative Officer Kevin Flynn. He says the town investigated Seamon Jr.’s alleged remarks and took action. Based on the advice of town lawyers he refused to tell us what was done.
“I can tell you we resolved that situation,” said Flynn. “We did take care of that internally.”
25 Investigates went to the Phillipston Fire Department in search of answers and found Capt. Seamon at the station.
We asked him about the vast number of resignations at his department and whether he made any inappropriate comments about a female firefighter. He refused to comment and directed us to Chief Administrative Officer Flynn.
The firefighters we spoke with do not believe Capt. Seamon has been reprimanded for his behavior. They claim he has been at work every day since Griffith filed her complaint.
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Meantime, they say that all the turmoil at the fire department has put the public’s safety at risk. In early December, there was a staff of 22. Now 15 remain. Phillipston’s firefighters are paid per call.
“It could be pretty tough if they get a major fire or something because they don't have the experience needed,” said former deputy fire chief Bankowski. “I would be concerned.”
But Flynn, the town’s Chief Administrative Officer, says residents should not be concerned, adding that the department is properly staffed and mutual aid from neighboring towns is always available.
Recently, we learned that one of the women we spoke with has filed a formal complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). MCAD would not offer comment.
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