A Kitchener firefighter who was seriously hurt while on the job claims he was unjustly demoted because of his symptoms.

Rick Smith fell to the ground during a rappelling demonstration in 1998. He landed on his head in a parking lot, suffering what he calls a “catastrophic brain injury.”

The fall left Smith off work for 20 months. For much of that time, he says, he was unable to walk or talk.

“I could not function at all,” he says.

He worked his way back to the fire department, and in time started climbing the ranks – a goal he’d had long before his fall. He became an acting captain in 2012 and a full captain in 2015.

In that time, Smith says he supervised more than 1,400 emergency calls. He says there were no public complaints about his behaviour or actions.

Nonetheless, he was demoted from his position. He says it was because of two complaints from colleagues – one from a trainee who said Smith raised his voice at him, and another from what he calls “basically a miscommunication” with a first responder from another agency.

“It came down to my word and (theirs), and it was discussed that due to my brain injury condition … it was quite possible that I actually believed my own version of the story,” he says.

“Since there was no verification from anyone that was outside … my word was not considered just. I was asked ‘Why would this person lie?’ and my response was ‘Why would I lie?’”

After that incident, Smith says, the fire chief told him “Rick, you lack a filter” and demoted him.

Smith argues that the chief should have taken into account that his actions can be considered a common side-effect of a brain injury.

“A person with a brain injury – they can be crass, they can be loud, they can be outspoken,” he says.

He says his he’s still dealing with issues related to his fall, although he says they don’t affect his ability to do the job from a technical standpoint.

 “I will not grow out of my brain injury,” he says.

“It’s not a broken leg that’s going to heal. I will have that until the day I am finished.”

Kitchener fire chief Jon Rehill declined an interview for this story, saying it would be “inappropriate” to comment on a matter currently before the Human Rights Tribunal.

“We respect the role of the Human Rights Tribunal and will participate fully in the process,” he said in an email.

“The City of Kitchener is committed to providing a safe and respectful working environment for all.

Smith says he wants to be reinstated as a captain, get reimbursed for wages he would have earned had he not been demoted, and be given an extra $100,000 for damages.

The allegations Smith has made have not been proven. The Human Rights Tribunal process allows for the fire department to have a chance to respond to his claims.

With reporting by Krista Simpson