Injured emergency services workers welcome inquiry

HOPE: Former police officer, paramedic and NSW Ambulance call taker Cindy Modderman is hoping the parliamentary inquiry is just the beginning. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
HOPE: Former police officer, paramedic and NSW Ambulance call taker Cindy Modderman is hoping the parliamentary inquiry is just the beginning. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Rebecca* will pay for the nearly 20 years she served as a police officer for the rest of her life. She grapples every day with memories of the bad jobs; murders, crashes, assaults and dead babies, as well as the loss of two colleagues to suicide and the feeling of hopelessness that comes with not being able to have helped them.

Her daily battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is compounded with another fight – for the condition and the bullying that followed her speaking out to be acknowledged by her former employer.

It is a fight that has taken up much of her time, energy and emotional reserves. In short, she says the ordeal has ruined her life. 

“It’s too late for me” the former Newcastle and Lake Macquarie officer said. “You only have so much fight in you.”

But she has joined other former and current emergency services workers battling the illness in cautiously welcoming the parliamentary inquiry into bullying in the sector.

“It’s not too late for the future ones,” Rebecca said. “It’s way too late for me, it’s 20 years too late for me, but you know what, we all need a voice.”

The inquiry, announced last month, will look at the prevalence of bullying, harassment and discrimination in the state’s emergency services, as well as the effectiveness of the procedures in place to resolve complaints.

For former paramedics and police officers the Herald has spoken to, the inquiry has brought hope that their stories may finally be heard.

Cindy Modderman is a former police officer and paramedic who has spoken out about bullying in the NSW Ambulance Service, the way the workers compensation system traumatises people and the way intrusive surveillance can prevent people getting well.

Ms Modderman hoped the inquiry would expose the “rife” bulllying within NSW Ambulance and eventually lead to a royal commission.

“They will be surprised by the number of submissions,” Ms Modderman said. “I am just hoping that we will get people doing their submissions because some people will be scared.

“There are a lot of people who are bullied that can … still go to work, so they are frightened that if they start talking their job is gone, which is another form of bullying in itself.”

Ambulance call taker Sarah*, who has slammed bullying at the Northern Control Centre in Charlestown, hoped the inquiry was just the beginning.

“I’m hoping and praying with everything I have in me that there’s a royal commission at the end of it,” she said. “I want them to read my submission and I want them to know that they’re not just hurting people, they’re not just breaking people down mentally, they are damaging people’s lives.

“It’s an organisation that is meant to care about people’s health but the ironic thing is that not only do they not care about their people’s health, they are doing things to diminish it.”

“If this ends up beating you and you end up dead, they are going to strip you bare at coroner's court. They are going to rip into you and you are not there to defend yourself. This is possibly the only opportunity that you can try to make a change."

- former police officer Rebecca

Rachel*, a former police officer who said she was destroyed by bullying in the force, hoped she could muster the courage to revisit her trauma to write her submission.

“I really want to make one (a submission). But it’s just digging up old stuff,” she said.

“Even though I live it every day, I try to avoid thinking about it but if I was to sit down and try and actually write about it I think it would make me worse and I’m really bad at the moment and I’m scared. But I do need to get it off my chest, I know I should do it.”

Former paramedic and founder of support group No More Neglect, Steve McDowell, also hoped the inquiry would be a stepping stone to a royal commission.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “My hope is that the portfolio committee … literally can’t cope with the number of submissions and have to call a royal commission.

“This is abhorrent what’s going on and the public need to know.

“There are lives at stake and they can’t keep doing nothing.”

He said he would be helping with submissions of some of his support group’s 3200 members.

“You’ve got people in their darkest hour who call 000 for and expect these people who turn up will be in the best of health, not being bullied, not having mental health issues. The public needs to be aware that the emergency services are being neglected by these government agencies.

“The day that this thing starts will be one of the happiest days in this state because some of the people have waited decades, literally decades, for this. They are retired now and they never thought they would see this day.”

Rebecca, who has criticised the NSW Police Force for the way it targets injured workers in a bid to manage them out, said the force had plenty of policies about how to help workers struggling, but had done little to address a culture where mental health issues are frowned upon and officers are ostracised, seen as weak and targeted if they admit they need help.

“They’ve got all the policies in the world and they don’t use any of them,” she said.

“They know that a drop in work performance or an increase in sick leave, an increase in disharmony in the workplace are all symptoms and they know all this but they treat you as disciplinary issues.”

She encourarged all traumatised emergency services workers to muster the strength and make a submission.

“If I could say one thing to all of those cops, it is if this ends up beating you and you end up dead, they are going to strip you bare at coroner’s court. They are going to rip into you and you are not there to defend yourself. This is possibly the one and only opportunity that you can try to make a change. There’s no point complaining to the cops … but this is your one and only chance, so do it.”

The NSW Police Force said it had “no tolerance for any form of bullying and harassment”.

“Constant vigilance and education is required to stamp out this type of behaviour in the workplace,” a spokesperson said. 

“The NSW Police Force does not hesitate to take the most serious management action when this type of behaviour occurs. We have strong and specific policies to deal with these matters. 

“These issues were examined in the Ronald’s Report of 2006 and subsequent recommendations were acted upon, including providing appropriate avenues for employees to report unacceptable behaviour.”

“Ongoing education is a must,” the spokesperson said. “The NSW Police Force is currently rolling out the Respectful and Inclusive Workplace campaign as part of continuing education and early intervention efforts.

“No organisation the size of the NSW Police Force could ever claim to have completely eliminated all instances of unacceptable workplace behaviour, however the appropriate avenues for reporting, investigation, the imposition of sanctions and ongoing education are key to ensuring staff are safe and supported in the workplace.”

A spokesperson for NSW Ambulance said the organisation “does not accept bullying and harassment in the workplace and fully supports the Parliamentary Inquiry”.

“As an organisation tasked with the care of others, we have a responsibility to promote a healthy workplace,” the spokesperson said.

“NSW Ambulance encourages staff to speak up about unacceptable behaviour. Only by being proactive, can staff help strengthen the policies, training and supports already under way.

“All personnel were advised of the Inquiry and invited to make a submission.”

Submissions to the inquiry are open until July 23 and can be made via parliament.nsw.gov.au/committees/inquiries.

For crisis support contact Lifeline Australia 13 11 14.

*Names were changed