Elisabeth Goh is a volunteer firefighter of Hornsby Heights RFB (NSW Rural Fire Service) and Manager at EY Australia, leading the Oceania Emergency Management and Disaster Resilience (EMDR) Community of Practice.
A daughter of a military and policing family, Elisabeth knows first-hand the many challenges experienced by those in the uniformed services and is passionate about first responder mental health as she continues to navigate her own experience with Complex PTSD.
Elisabeth often takes on both operational and incident management roles with NSW RFS; it was her experiences on the ground throughout Black Summer that triggered her to rethink traditional approaches to support and engage with vulnerable and diverse communities, before, during, and after operations and incidents.
Her core passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has led to her drawing upon her own experiences as a young, queer woman of colour in emergency services to seek out and develop models of engagement to improve DEI in the EMDR workforce and to support better outcomes in the community.
She has spoken at both the Australian Community Engagement and Fire Awareness Conference (ACEFA) and the Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC) Conferences on DEI, encouraging the EMDR sector to strengthen its support and engagement with Australia’s diverse community.
Outside of firefighting, Elisabeth enjoys crocheting, bouldering, writing, and photography. She documents life as a bush firefighter on her website and on social media under the handle firehawkx_ .
Can you tell us a about your experience as a firefighter?
I joined the Rural Fire Services about 6-7 years ago. My dad, who was a part of the SES and local fire brigade, used to take me to see the helicopters every day during the 2001-2002 bushfires, which inspired me. I also saw an Asian firefighter appear which added to my feeling inspired. After joining, I was a part of the taskforce who defended Australia during the black summer fires and numerous seasonal bushfires, floods, and other emergency deployments. A large part of my job is incident management in strategic communications for communities impacted by fire. I look after a lot of vulnerable communities including the highly multicultural and the elderly. I have an empathy-based approach to my work and, due to my own cultural background, which is Asian, I use my likeness in communities wherever I see it is important, because I am passionate about inclusion and diversity in this space.
Coming from first-hand experience, have you felt any anxiety about the current/upcoming bushfire season?
I think we will always have anxiety; I never really sleep well before a deployment. But now I am a very different person than I was 6-7 years ago. I have grown, learnt more, and experienced more. I am inspired by how much the community has learnt since the 2019/2020 bushfires, but of course I have had anxiety since these events.
Can you tell us about your experience with Fortem Australia?
I had 2 very large and significant PTSD episodes in quick succession of each other earlier this year. I was well supported by a Captain within my service, and a friend of mine. Through both of those experiences it became clear that I needed additional support, and that’s when I got a referral to Fortem. They recognised that I needed to speak to someone very soon and connected me to Marnie in the psychology and counselling team. Since then, I have seen her on a weekly basis and we are now seeing that I am experiencing Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). Had it not been for Fortem, I wouldn’t have been on top of a lot of things like my PTSD and the general stressors of firefighting. Without Fortem I also simply wouldn’t have the money to spend on going to therapy each week. I also appreciate that because Fortem’s services are emergency services/first responder specific, Marnie is not fazed by the experiences, feelings and thoughts that I share with her. I tell her how I am feeling and she is able to work through it with me.
Why do you thinks it’s important to have an organisation like Fortem here to help?
It is a very unique environment that I work in, and we are all doing the best we can for ourselves and each other, but having an organization external to provide a fresh point of view is great. Understanding the context of what we are experiencing but not being in it directly is important. I really love that. I also feel safer to have these conversations and confident that I will be well supported from the outside and have a safe space away from both my everyday life and work life.
If you have one piece of advice for other first responders, what would it be?
It would be to get support whether you’re feeling good or not so good. Be prepared. You can recognise and celebrate all of the great things you experience as a first responder, but you can also recognise and work through the hard times. Recalling and remembering and all the goodness around the bad experiences is important.