First Responder Story: “Talking about it openly really helps us all”

For Melissa, an SES volunteer in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, being a first responder is all about a sense of community. 

“With the SES there’s always a sense of community,” she says. “Whether we’ve been to an incident that’s difficult or we’re dealing with people who are distressed, the communication is very open. All of us volunteers debrief and talk about what we’ve seen.” 

Having previously volunteered with Northern Territory Fire and Rescue, Melissa was keen to keep up those skills when she moved back to Melbourne so that she could keep doing the work that she believes in. 

“My brothers are in the CFA, and my mum is always doing lots of volunteer work in the community, so I’ve seen the value in volunteering and helping people,” she explains. 

It’s also important, she adds, to keep challenging herself in new ways. “I like to learn new things. I’m a teacher, and I tell the kids in my classroom that they should learn something new each week. I’m modelling that. 

“I’ve learnt things I never thought I’d know how to do: how to use a chainsaw, drive a truck, climb on the roof for storm damage – those skills have come from the SES, and I use them in my general life as well.” 

Family connection is important for first responders 

Melissa says her partner and his son worry about her when she’s called out to jobs.  

“I talk to my partner about it when I get home. Sometimes it’s hard that it takes me away from them, but talking about it openly really helps us all.” 

As well as being a good role model for her students, Melissa also believes it’s good for her stepson to see what she does. “When I explain what I’ve been doing to my stepson he sometimes says, ‘Dad could have done that’. I tell him that’s true, but I like to show him that women can do these things as well.” 

Melissa says that engaging with Fortem’s activities has helped to make up for the family time that she sometimes misses. 

“Last school holidays my stepson and I did some Fortem activities: to Werribee Zoo one day, and horse riding another day,” she says. “To do those experiences and try new things together was exciting. It was a great chance to turn the pager off and have one-on-one time, as well as a chance for my stepson to talk to kids from other first responder families.” 

There was another way that Melissa felt the connection with Fortem and her community recently, too. She explains, “The Fortem team came out to our training one Monday night, and they gave us thank you cards from some of the kids in the community (pictured above). It was really nice to see and hear that the kids are recognising who we are. And it helped more volunteers in our unit find out what Fortem do, and how to get into these activities that promote our wellbeing.”