By Tim Barlass – 27th November 2019

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A volunteer firefighter has received compensation for chronic PTSD in a settlement with the NSW government in what is believed to be the first of its kind.

Negotiations went on for two days at the Supreme Court to avert what was expected to be a 15-day hearing between Simon Andrews and the State of NSW.

Former firefighter Simon Andrews, who suffers from PTSD, has won compensation from the NSW government – Credit: Janie Barrett

Mr Andrews left the court smiling when the settlement was announced at midday on Wednesday,  but declined to comment.

A statement of claim said Mr Andrews developed PTSD while attending more than 772 traumatic incidents over seven years. He was never told he was at risk of developing the disorder, court documents say.

Mr Andrews joined the Illawong Rural Fire Service in 1997 and the Austral RFS, where he was a first responder, in 2002.

Incidents he attended included an attempted suicide, fatal accidents and a car accident in which a passenger was trapped for two hours.

At one point, he consulted NSW Rural Fire Service welfare manager Paul Scott. He saw him once a month for a number of months but Mr Scott did not recommend that Mr Andrews see a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist, court papers say.

Mr Scott advised Mr Andrews in 2004 that he didn’t need to see him any more. That year, Mr Andrews attended 110 incidents including 46 fires and explosions, five hazardous conditions and 10 motor accident rescues.

PTSD expert Alexander McFarlane, who gave written evidence,told the Herald: “If you join any emergency service, you have a medical before you go in and there are obviously recruitment standards. Certainly in Mr Andrews’ case no such assessment was made of him when he joined the organisation.

“He had been a member since 1997 and then he was kicked out for behaviour unbecoming of an officer. He re-enlisted without any proper screening and without any proper scrutiny of his previous service and what difficulties he’d had,” said Professor McFarlane, who has acted as a special adviser to the Department of Veterans’ Affairsand been engaged by Britain’s Ministry of Defence.

“Once you get into these organisations, unlike the military, you don’t have to have a physical and psychological assessment on a regular basis.”

These organisations have tended to think that trauma counselling or debriefing is sufficient, but the evidence shows that is completely ineffective, he said.

“We depend on volunteers to these organisations and you want a volunteer organisation that you know is going to look after you.”

The court papers say that, following Mr Andrews’ attendance at critical incidents, the defendant took no action to screen him or assess him for possible development of PTSD.

Mr Andrews’ PTSD led to alcohol abuse. He suffered loss of earnings and the capacity to earn an income.

Michael Holton, president of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association said the settlement could open the floodgates for other claims.

“The NSW RFS has a duty of care for all of its workers and the majority of those are volunteers,” he said.

“Recent bushfire events have highlighted the level of reliance upon our volunteer firefighters, but the NSW government has been asleep at the wheel.”

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