Reflections on volunteer firefighting from an in-house counsel
Working with the NSW Rural Fire Service has provided Karina Veling with more than just personal wisdom – it has given her greater insight into her duties as a lawyer and the obligations upon the broader legal profession to support the community.
Ms Veling (pictured), who works as an in-house counsel, joined the NSW RFS over two years ago. She always had an interest in the fire brigade, she mused, and volunteer work in this capacity allows her to continue her legal career “whilst also contributing to an important service for our state”, she said.
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“I was also fascinated by the idea of learning new skills completely different to my career or daily hobbies. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – I love being involved,” she said.
This fire season has, of course, created scenes unlike anything many Australians have ever seen before, and with potentially irrevocable consequences. Lawyers Weekly reported earlier this week on the action being taken by legal professional bodies across the country, in NSW and in South Australia, and late last year reported which major firms have taken action on climate change.
Ms Veling has been in the thick of it with NSW RFS. Over the past month, she has been involved primarily with hazard reduction burning, setting up contamination lines and protecting properties.
“It’s a lot of hard work (physically and mentally) under very tense conditions. There’s also an element of community engagement and citizen protection… this can be difficult considering what a lot of people are going through,” she explained.
“The other side of the coin is what we call ‘get ready and wait’ – most days our brigade has been on 12-hour standby shifts ready to go when incident or emergency calls come in. We also meet weekly to train, upskill and maintain equipment and vehicles.”
One thing that has become immediately apparent to her, she noted, how “amazing [it is] to see our Aussie spirit pull together”, with the concept of “helping a neighbour out” really shining through, she said – even from across the globe.
“I’m amazed at how many people are offering their homes, resources and prayers to those in need. Recently our crew was tasked to monitor spot fires around Bilpin and some locals came out of their homes (which were under threat the day earlier) to thank us,” she recounted.
“Our lunch eskies were lined with letters from local schools acknowledging our work. It was humbling. Interacting with locals makes everything very real and you can feel the genuine support for everyone involved.”
Moreover, there have been lessons for Ms Veling herself, both personally and professionally.
“I’ve learnt that it is possible to do anything you set your mind to, no matter how challenging or obscure. I’m also surprised at how calm I’ve been when responding under pressure... perhaps something my legal background has helped with,” she said.
Her time as a volunteer firefighter has also provided insight into how best the legal profession in Australia can be assisting – not just during this extraordinary fire season, but more generally with the protection of our natural environment.
“Most if not all organisations play a role in helping through their CSR efforts – it’s amazing to see law firms, recruitment agencies and other companies commit to donations, fundraising and contributions (financial or otherwise). Due to the nature of our profession, legal teams themselves have a kind of superpower,” she posited.
“Pro bono legal work for those impacted will be needed in a number of areas, especially in the aftermath and recovery period. It may be a good idea for firms to group together and establish specific disaster relief pro bono clinics – directed to impacted suburbs and providing specialised legal services.”
Elsewhere, there is action that can be taken by individual lawyers wanting to further aid the cause, Ms Veling concluded.
“If lawyers in specialised areas have the capacity to provide pro bono support to those in need, it’s a good way to get involved. [Your] Law Society can help direct you if needed. If that’s not possible, it may even be as simple as writing some FAQs on legal topics which may arise from the events and making these available to impacted communities – think [of] insurance claims, housing issues, construction works, loss of business and advice on natural disaster leave for both employees and employers,” she suggested.
“Of course, donations never go astray – if you’re unsure, I’d recommend The Australian Red Cross. Any help and support individuals can show their local RFS brigades is always very welcome – it doesn’t need to be financial, even things as simple as [bringing] members a sandwich or water never goes unnoticed (or a cold beer at the end of a shift!).”
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