Sergeant Phil Simmonds lost count long ago of the number of lives he has saved and families he has supported through the loss of a loved one.
Over three decades, Phil has been involved in almost every major search and rescue (SAR) event in the South Island - of which there have been many - as well as numerous national and international deployments.
This month he retired, 35 years to the day after he joined Police and after more than 30 years in SAR – a passion he shared with his father.
Sergeant Mac Simmonds, Phil’s dad, formed the first West Coast Police SAR squad in Greymouth back in 1964. Like Phil, Mac was a SAR legend – he led the SAR response to the Strongman State coal mine 1967 explosion that killed 19 men, and the following year he was the Police Liaison Officer for the Inangahua earthquake.
When Phil joined Police in 1988, he quickly set about continuing his father’s legacy.
By his own admission, Phil strategically chose to work in beat and community constable roles because they afforded him the flexibility to stay involved in search and rescue.
He says he has been fortunate that he has always been supported to pursue his passion.
“I find it hard to believe I got to do what I love every day and still call it work,” Phil says.
“There’s no doubt some parts of the job are tough, but I take solace in returning victims to their families.”
Phil’s passion for search and rescue is complemented by his love of the great outdoors, which started early.
He remembers being dragged up Roys Peak in Wanaka and Carroll Hut in the Kelly Range by his parents as a five-year-old but admits he didn’t love it at the time.
The promise of a sip of beer (at a very young age) got him up the hill and he’s never looked back.
Phil began his Police career with Wing 113 and was initially posted to Timaru. He stayed in Canterbury District throughout his career, working in PST and then joining Christchurch’s Beat Section in 1992, where he worked from the Cathedral Square kiosk for 12 years.
Also in 1992, Phil joined the Christchurch SAR Squad, the squad he has led for the past nine years.
During this time, Phil has successfully run several high-profile operations, including Operation Kirsty in 1999 - a three-week search of rugged terrain in extreme heat to locate Kirsty Bentley’s body - and the search for two women missing in Arthur's Pass for eight nights in 2003. The pair were eventually rescued from an exposed rock face.
In 2003, when Police established the National Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team, Phil was appointed as an inaugural member.
He was involved in DVI responses to the 2004 Thailand tsunami, the 2006 Solomon Islands riots, the 2009 Victorian bush fires, the 2010 Pike River Mine disaster, the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, the 2012 Carterton balloon disaster and the 2019 Christchurch terror attacks.
In 2021, Phil identified a climber who died in 1978 but whose remains had lain unidentified in the mortuary for five years.
As well as his strong operational focus, mentoring and advocacy has always been part of Phil’s MO.
He was an instructor on the Police National Search and Rescue Course for many years, as well as the National Disaster Victim Identification Course and the Search and Rescue Managers Course.
Phil is also a passionate supporter of the many volunteers the country relies on to ensure loved ones make it home. Through regular SAREX (search and rescue exercises) he brought Police, partner agencies and volunteers together – the infamous fancy dress nights being the highlight for many.
In 2013, Phil received the New Zealand Order of Merit for his dedication and services to the Police and Search and Rescue, and in 2021 he was awarded the national Search and Rescue Lou Grant Award.
It came as no surprise there was standing room only at Phil’s farewell on Friday 12 May. The room was packed with Police colleagues, members of partner agencies, volunteers, friends and whānau; all there to acknowledge the man aptly summed up by Inspector Craig McKay as "a remarkably humble leader who would do all that was humanly possible to return people to their loved ones”.
“Today we remember the countless lives you have saved, the countless hours spent training and preparing for any emergency, and the countless sacrifices you have made to keep our communities safe,” Craig said.
“Those you rescued will now celebrate another birthday, Christmas and other milestones with their families because of your actions. You are their hero.”