Baptism of Fire
NSW firefighter David Simms found himself ambushed by his own colleagues, blindfolded, gagged, tied to a chair and doused with cooking oil and cleaning products - all for their amusement. The humiliation only ended when a fire call came in.
David Simms was London’s youngest ever leading firefighter in charge of the city’s busiest fire truck before he devoted his career to Fire and Rescue NSW.
That decision ruined his life.
Accused by superiors - and cleared by police - of serious fraud, Mr Simms has spent the past seven years fighting to clear his name.
From a shocking “initiation” ordeal, to covert investigations and the threat of criminal charges hanging over his head, Mr Simms only just made it out the other side.
“I lived and breathed the fire brigade and they totally destroyed me,” he said. “They have put me into mental institutions. I’m constantly having breakdowns, suicidal thoughts. I lost my friends and my family - all based on a fabricated lie.”
Mr Simms has decided to go public in the hope that the FRNSW “won’t be allowed to continue their behavior of destroying people and leaving an innocent family to pick up the wreckage”.
If his story "stops one person from going through the hell that I have, I will consider it my one last act to protect another firefighter from harm”.
David Simms was checking equipment one shift at a busy NSW station in 2002 when he was grabbed from behind and a flash hood placed over his head.
A group of firefighters picked him up, carried him to the rear yard and tied him to a chair with rope and gaffer tape around his shoulders, wrists and ankles.
“My flash hood was taken off and gaffer tape put over my mouth to restrict my breathing,” he recalls. “They used a large hose under high pressure. I was like a pin in a bowling alley. They used the force of the jet aimed at my face and body to knock me over.”
Cleaning products and cooking oils were poured over his eyes.
“They used the high-velocity ventilation fan to propel wood chippings, rubbish and debris at me from a few metres away. Someone put a pair of goggles on me when the debris got into my eyes."
Mr Simms says the ordeal only ended when it became obvious he was having trouble breathing through his nose - and a fire call came in.
He was untied and rushed himself to the showers to ”decontaminate” himself.
“I felt degraded and humiliated by my work colleagues.”
Mr Simms never reported the incident because “it seemed to be a standard procedure and it happened to many firemen”. Instead he applied for a transfer which was granted.
The pictures were anonymously posted into his locker. Faces blacked out.
The case against him
Mr Simms, who joined FRNSW in 1998, was one of two firefighters who drove specially fitted semi-trailers around the state to train crews in the use of breathing apparatus.
In 2012 he was accused of fraud by superiors and told he was being charged - but heard nothing more for eight months about the nature of the 113 allegations. “The uncertainty left me devastated, my career hanging in the balance of injustice.”
When Mr Simms approached Workplace Standards, the relevant departments and various fire stations to obtain evidence to counter the allegations against him, he was told by a superintendent that he had to GIPA any information sought.
He did so, only to find the relevant information had been lost. His health was deteriorating, so his partner Lee-Anne tried to help him.
“The superintendent went to the extent of group emailing people that David had sought information from, that I knew to exist, telling them not to reply to his request for information or engage him in any way, shape or form,” she said.
“Strangely enough, all of the documentation that we sought to prove his evidence suddenly became lost.
“FRNSW rules and regulation states that David was entitled to all documentation that he needed to clear his name but we were repeatedly denied the right to prove his innocence.”
Lee-Anne sourced information independently, and eventually had enough evidence that the Workers Compensation Commission ruled in Mr Simms' favour. But the case and the isolation took its toll. He was medically retired in 2015 and has been fighting his ex-employer, and his demons, ever since.
“I have disproved every single one of those allegations with between two and 12 separate pieces of irrefutable proof, which eventuated in me winning my Workers Compensation case,” Mr Simms said.
In 2012 FRNSW was under pressure to slash its budget by $30 million and the future of the state’s two breathing apparatus semi-trailers - one of which was used by Mr Simms - was under threat.
It was within weeks of him raising concerns about slashing of the statewide training program that he says he was accused of misappropriation of public funds in relation to his travelling roster.
“The commissioner requested that the NSW Police Fraud Squad be informed of the 113 allegations who then questioned me at length. The police decided that I was innocent, yet FRNSW refused to withdraw the case against me.
“I had been performing the same travel arrangements for the previous six years and they had been both pre and post approved by all of my managers in that time without any problem whatsoever.
“I saved FRNSW $42,000 per year in unclaimed overtime, fuel by not returning home and consistently performed more drills and personnel trained per week by staying in remote locations.”
Mr Simms, who has been assessed as having a 19 per cent permanent disability and officially deemed never to work again, was awarded ongoing payments up until his retirement age - which equated to $31,075 annually for the next 17 years - or the option of suing for damages.
He chose to sue FRNSW.
“I opted out of the workers comp system because I couldn't face a life of living under the Employers Mutual Limited microscope, the stress and hyper vigilance of being under covert surveillance, constantly having to beg for reimbursements, assistance and treatments,” Mr Simms said.
“All that I want is the freedom to live life on my own terms, without being hounded by EML and constantly jumping at shadows.”
Mr Simms was being paid $100,000 a year for working 16-hour days, five days a week, and being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Lawyers estimated a fair compensation payout to be $1.2 million.
The original FRNSW offer was $17,000 and went up to $250,000 after legal expenses. As recently as last week the organisation refused to budge on their offer.
“I had 27 years of my career left and they want me to accept $178 a week in compensation, which is just over $9000 a year,” Mr Simms said.
“How am I going to provide for my family's future with that?
“And that's not taking into account doctors, psychiatrists, hospital stays and my weekly medication bill of $20, which currently workers comp is paying.
“If I accept their offer, everything will then come out of the $9000 a year. I'll have to stop all of my treatments. I have no choice, I've got a family to feed and to keep a roof over their heads.”
In the wake
Mr Simm’s case has meant Lee-Anne has had to leave her job as a nurse to become his full-time carer.
“I couldn't face the thought of wondering every time that I came home from work if I'd find David dead or alive,'' she said.
"I'm disgusted with the way FRNSW is treating David. This is a man whom has deliberately put his own life at risk and in harm’s way for 17 years, yet FRNSW have deliberately watched David slowly drown in mental illness.
“They drag us through court time and time again because on every occasion that we win a court battle they appeal the judge’s decision immediately. It's still ongoing today,” she said.
“FRNSW are aware that certain superintendents and deputy commissioners have broken so many of their own rules and regulations in relentlessly pursuing David.
“Instead of acknowledging their wrongdoing and mistakes, they are trying to push him over the edge by destroying him. No concern for his welfare whatsoever.”
FRNSW told the Mercury: "Mr Simms ceased employment with Fire and Rescue NSW in February 2015. All matters relating to the Boland Report recommendations (see below) were finalised by mid-2017. FRNSW does not comment on individual misconduct and workers compensation matters."
Firefighter on quest for closure
Four years ago an independent investigation was launched after firefighters from the Illawarra and across NSW contacted the Mercury with signed statutory declarations detailing allegations of bullying and harassment.
Shellharbour MP Anna Watson helped push for the probe, saying "disturbing allegations" of dozens of men and women had fallen on deaf ears.
Justice Roger Boland conducted a "re-assessment of each claim’’ made by past and present Fire and Rescue NSW officers. Mr Simms was one of those former officers.
He believes that despite Justice Boland's finding in relation to his matter, his former employer has continued to fight him and refused to acknowledged his innocence.
In response to detailed questions from the Mercury about Mr Simms' case, FRNSW was far from forthcoming this week.
"Mr Simms ceased employment with Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) in February 2015," they said.
"All matters relating to the Boland Report recommendations were finalised by mid-2017. FRNSW does not comment on individual misconduct and workers compensation matters."
And yes, that's all they said.
"I don't really understand FRNSW's response," Mr Simms said on Friday. "Is it saying that because I was an ex-employee that I was not entitled to having my case reviewed and therefore it was OK for (FRNSW) to overrule the Boland Report recommendations on my case?"
We are not sure either.
Mr Simms and his partner Lee-Anne - who are writing a book on their battle for justice - deserve to know.
That's not much to ask after dedicating your life to protecting your community.
Their book aims to reveal the "unacceptable subculture inherent in FRNSW and the personal impact and toll the last seven years has taken on myself and our family".
"I want to once again be part of a team that provides support for other firefighters who are going through similar ordeals and to continue always having their backs," he said.
Selfless to the end.