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Talei wears many hats to support her community 


Rural Fire Service (RFS) and State Emergency Service (SES) volunteer Talei Elu is determined to improve the resilience of her community.

The 31-year-old Saibai Koedal (crocodile) woman lives in Seisia, a small Torres Strait Islander community on the north-west coast of Cape York Peninsula. 

Talei, who was awarded the Queensland Young Australian of the Year in 2023, was first introduced to the RFS and SES in 2021 while trying to get help for a sick relative.

“My relative was having trouble breathing. We called Triple Zero and we weren’t getting connected, so we had to separate ourselves from her and create a three-person network to get connected while still being close enough to talk to her. This highlighted the issue we have in our community around health and responsiveness,” Talei said.

“The Queensland Ambulance Service paramedic, Karl, who has come to help my family and other community members on various occasions, was also the Secretary for the RFS. In the months that followed we worked together to advocate for a new telecommunications tower to be built for our community.” 

Talei and her community, with the help of the QAS paramedics, were successful in their efforts. A new telecommunications tower is due to be built early this year.

After seeing Talei’s passion for her community, Karl encouraged her to join the RFS and SES.

“My first interaction was at an RFS training day where we learnt how to use a drip torch and learnt about fire behaviour,” Talei said.

“They were talking about how fires can spread depending on the landscape, I thought it was fascinating. I knew I wanted to join.

“My first activation was in a place called Loyalty Beach about 15 minutes from my community in a campground area. It was a small fire, but it was a good opportunity to see how the First Officer managed the situation, how he tasked things out and the debrief session we had after. I saw how his local knowledge of the landscape helped to understand the fire and its movement. 

“It was a really fun, adrenaline-inducing experience, and great to know we were protecting people from fire.”

Talei said one of the bigger fires she attended was in September last year.

“It was huge and was quite close to my community, so I was able to play a key role,” Talei said.

“I stayed at the back of the community to monitor. We had a few new recruits who were driving the trucks who didn’t know my community very well. When the fire was approaching, I instructed them to avoid certain areas I knew were too soft to handle the weight of our trucks. 

“It gave me the opportunity to reflect on how much I had learned and reminded me that I do know this landscape well and I can contribute to making sure our equipment and assets are safe, as well as local families.

“A lot of community members were watching. I had to direct a few to turn on their sprinklers to make sure their yards were wet. A lot of community members were assisting with hoses and driving buggies to monitor different areas, as the perimeter was a lot for the local volunteers to handle at the height of the fire. 

“After a couple of years trying to get more local volunteers and educating people about fire safety, it was heart-warming to see so many people jump into action.”

Talei’s first SES activation was a lift assist helping paramedics get someone who was unwell down a set of stairs.

“After you do the job you feel like you’ve helped someone to receive care quickly and efficiently,” Talei said.

“I’ve learnt heaps. One of my favourite training sessions was road crash rescue and learning how to use the cutters. Seeing the more seasoned SES crew cut up a car in less than a minute was so impressive.

“In Cape York we have a lot of tourists and crashes can be pretty intense. These roads are hundreds of kilometres long and far away from the closest hospitals in Cairns and Townsville, so time really is of the essence.”

Talei’s passion for improving her community was recognised in 2023 when she received the Queensland Young Australian of the Year award for several projects she coordinated to improve health, communications and education in her community.

Talei was born in Seisia and has also lived in Thursday Island and Canberra. She returned to live in Seisia during COVID-19 and said the difference between these lifestyles was stark.

‘In Canberra I saw a very different world with a lot of privileges,” Talei said.

“I would go back home on holidays and at that time we didn’t even have bitumen roads. I was going between two really different experiences.

“When I returned to Seisia permanently during COVID-19, I got to experience what it was like living back home again and the hardships experienced by a lot of people living here.”

Talei’s goal is to focus on small community projects and find interventions that help improve the health and wellbeing of the community. 

During COVID-19, she worked on a project to translate health messages in Torres Strait Islander creole. 

Talei recently finished studying an intensive course in cybernetics, robotics and coding. She was able to put this knowledge to good use by securing funding to update digital maps with Indigenous names to help emergency services locate patients in remote areas.