Make way for firewomen

Five twenty-somethings from nearby villages in Satara and Vidarbha, some of whom worked as farm hands and were training to become nursery teachers, have come to Mumbai to break into what is often thought of as a masculine bastion -- the city's fire brigade. Lhendup G Bhutia meets Mumbai's first female firefighters

On a quiet Wednes-day morning in Byculla, when the Y Bridge is deserted and pigeons have settled into stray corners, a loud, throaty sound shatters the silence. Follow it and it leads you to the imposing Byculla Fire Station at the end of the flyover. As you enter it, the noise only gets louder.

Kavita Burkul

Here, in the middle of a large open space, groups of firemen in dark blue tunics, black helmets and chemical and fire-proof rubber shoes, are playing an extremely rough sport, peculiar to them, called the fire drill. They run as though competing in a rugby match, carrying water lines the size of their waists, holding on to them tightly as the water gushes out. When the drill is over, they punch and slap each other in celebration.

A resident of a village in Ahmednagar, was training to become a nursery
school teacher before she accepted a job at the fire station. Kanchan
Rathod is a colleague. Pics/ Bipin Kokate

Suddenly, the raucous cheering stops and the masculine back-slapping comes to an abrupt halt. Walking in almost a line, wearing light blue shirts and dark pants, which they tug at uncomfortably, five women in fire brigade uniforms walk by, looking around nervously. 

Female firefighters attempt to cut an iron grill.

Each of their hesitant steps is a historic one, quite literally -- it is the first time ever in the city's history that women are walking in fire brigade regalia. Consider the fact that the fire brigade was set up as a part function of the Mumbai police in 1885, a time of horse-drawn fire engines, and the occasion gets even more momentous. No wonder then that television reporters follow the five around as they make their way to their first orientation, where they are introduced to the different instruments used by firefighters.

The firefighters at their orientation ceremony

Soon, interviews follow. Each one talks as though reciting from memory. Rolling her eyes upward, the first one to go is 21 year-old Varsha Vasantra Budhawant. "I want to serve my country, I want to save lives," she says, and the rest continue in a similar vein.

To show their mettle to the TV cameras, they are asked to chop an iron grill in half. But even after 10 minutes of wrestling with a grill cutter, employing their hands, legs and later their entire bodies, none of them accomplishes the task. Behind, some firemen are unable to stifle their laughs.

Later at the watch room where they are instructed on how to attend to
emergency calls

What you notice, though, is how young each one is. Nirmala Shankar Ingale, the frailest of the lot, for instance, is a 21 year-old dark-skinned girl with so many pimples on her face that she could have passed off for a young teenager. She hails from Satara's Kelavali village, where she lives with seven other family members squeezed into a small two-room house. "My father owns a small farm and my elder brother works as a driver.

My brother earns too little and we survive mostly on my father's income. But even that is fickle; we have to depend completely on the rains, and often on a moneylender's generosity," she says. "When I came to Mumbai, I knew my family needed this job badly. I was asked to complete an 800 metre track in four minutes. I had never run like that before, and midway, I knew I was struggling. But I just ran and ran." Ingale reportedly finished the race in three minutes 50 seconds. After getting through other gruelling physical tests and a written examination, Ingale now earns Rs 15,000 approximately.

Today, however, there are no tasks to be completed. After the orientation, they sit in the watch room -- which answers emergency calls from citizens -- surprised at the number of telephones around (five in all). Like Ingale, all the girls come from rural parts of Maharashtra. One of them, 23 year-old Lata Rathod, who hails from Beed's Sira Deevi village, constantly fidgets with her belt and trousers.

Rathod has never worn trousers in her life and finds the belt particularly difficult to manoeuvre. She says, "In my village, I only wore salwar kameezes. I used to think I would one day wear trousers, but they would be jeans, not a man's uniform."

At this, 21 year old Budhawant joins in. "And what about this?" she  asks, indignantly pointing at her own hair. She tells us that she took an entire day to simply learn how to tie her hair in one knot, as opposed to the two plaits she prefers. That's not all. None of them are permitted to wear any make up, except earrings.

However, all this light-hearted talk masks the effort they have put in to get the jobs. During their six month-long training, they had to complete races, pushups, long jumps, climb stairs, and even leap from a height of 20 feet onto jumping sheets. "When I was asked to jump from that height, I was scared. But I could not hesitate, let alone refuse. The men would think we don't belong here," feels Ingale. All of them live with relatives in Mumbai, wake up at 3.30 am to prepare meals and then make it to their 7 am to 3 pm shift.

Twenty one year-old Kavita Balu Burkul, who always dreamt of becoming a nursery teacher, and has another year of her Diploma of Education (D.Ed.), to complete, chimes in.  "The most difficult part was the constant running and exercising. I have always helped my father in the fields, but these exercises were so strenuous, our legs would hurt at night. We had to apply balm to soothe the pain."

But none of them told their parents how difficult the training was. Kanchan Keshav Rathod, 21, who hails from Vidharba's Phusad village says, "How could I tell them this? As it is, they were upset that I was going to work in the fire department. They told me, this is not a woman's job; all my colleagues will be men."

In fact, Rathod had an argument her father about this issue when she moved to Mumbai. "I will be going back home on February 1 with my first salary. I am sure they will realise that it is a worthwhile job," she says.

Lightening the mood, Ingale laughs and recalls, "You know what my nephew asked me the other day? He asked me if the MFB embroidered in my cap stands for Male Female Brigade." It actually stands for Mumbai Fire Brigade.

According to KR Yadav, Station Officer, Byculla Fire Station, the women will initially spend their time in office, taking calls and learning administrative work before being part of rescue operations. "Like every other fireman, we will monitor their work in the office and when the time is right, we will send them for rescue operations.

They can be extremely helpful while dealing with female victims," he says. Another six female firefighters are undergoing training and are expected to join the force in three months time.

However, many male firefighters are unsure if women can participate in rescue operations. One fireman, who has been in the profession for over 20 years, says, "It's nice to see women coming up in different professions, but will they be able to manage a dangerous situation on field? Will they be able to remove dead bodies, withstand the smoke in a building on fire?"

Budhawant, however, is certain she can. "We have undergone every bit of training that men have and been good enough to be given this job. I can't wait to prove people wrong, if I haven't already," she says. As I leave the fire station, I notice an iron rod, cut in half. One of the girls had managed to cut it after all.

When cartwheels were used to fight fire
The origins of the Fire Service in Mumbai can be traced to 1477, when locals were allotted Rs 4 per day for handling different carts and horse chariots, which were used to extinguish fire. In 1855, the Bombay Fire Brigade started as a part-time function of the police and a regular fire service with horse-drawn fire engines came into being in the city under control of the Commissioner of Police.

In 1888, the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act was enacted and protection of life and properties from fire become the obligatory duty of the Corporation. W Nicholls of the London Fire Brigade was appointed Chief Officer of Bombay Fire Brigade in 1890 and the management passed into the hands of a professional fire-fighting officer.

In 1907, the first petrol-driven motor fire engine was imported and commissioned for the Bombay Fire Brigade. The brigade was motorised by replacing the horse-drawn steam engine in 1920 and the Bombay Fire Brigade started ambulance services consisting of six ambulances donated by Bai Jerbal Wadia and Sir Mangaldas Mehta.

How women replaced male firefighters during the War
The first known female firefighter of the US was a slave from New York named Molly Williams, who fought fires during the early 1800s. In the 1820s, another female firefighter emerged, a volunteer firefighter in Pittsburgh named Marina Betts.

In Great Britain, Girton Ladies' College had an all-women's fire brigade from 1878 until 1932. During World War II, some women served as firefighters in the United States and Great Britain to replace firemen who joined the military; indeed, during part of the war, two fire departments in Illinois were all-female.

In 1942 the first all-female forest firefighting crew in California was created. There were all-female fire companies in Kings County, California, and Woodbine, Texas, in the 1960s. In the United States today, approximately 2 per cent of all firefighters are female.

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