Thirteen years ago, Tamil Nadu created history by becoming the first state in the country to recruit two women fire officers. But the national capital’s firefighting service — in its 74 years of existence — is yet to let women extinguish gender barriers.
The Delhi Fire Service (DFS) has 1,950 male operational staff and senior officers, according to a Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report tabled this year, but not a single woman firefighter.
“Studies show women are biologically more likely to survive than men. Their haemoglobin level is generally low. Yet, they go about their day-to-day business. I will be happy to have women in my team,” says Connaught Place fire station officer in-charge, Rajesh Shukla.
The five-year audit report pointed out that DFS has 1,469 vacancies in those posts — a 42.8% staff shortage. The force attends 27,000 calls per year—roughly 73 calls per day. The firemen work continuously for 24 hours on alternate days.
In May, the DFS reportedly even decided to hire retired fire officials for a year. However, they haven’t reached out to women.
Delhi home minister Satyendar Jain, to whom the fire services report, said, “If women apply, we are happy to recruit them. I have read in papers about other states having women firefighters.”
Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Mumbai fire services have paved the way for “lady firemen”.
Meenakshi Vijaykumar, India’s first woman fire officer and now deputy director of Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services, says it’s all got to do with mentality. “We are officers, irrespective of gender… We are ready to die — that’s the mindset we have. Women are already around LPG cylinders all day long. We are capable of holding 180-pound hoses, we are trained to saw, cut and pull out bodies from debris.”
“Women have an edge,” says the President’s Gallantry Medal awardee, as they are more sensitive to suffering, more caring and are natural multi-taskers. “It helps on the job where we have to think, command and act.”
Her family’s support makes it easier, she says. “The only thing they tell me is, “Be safe and take care.”
Lady fireman Chainkanwer (30) of Bindayaka fire station in Rajasthan’s capital Jaipur echoes the view. Her family supports her and thinks highly of her job. “They are not scared, not even my child,” she says.
Rajasthan Fire Services inducted 119 women firefighters in March 2014. A year and a half later, 28 more women were inducted across the state.
Chainkanwer has three female firefighter colleagues. She recalls an incident when just two of them were on duty.
“The men weren’t available. There was a call…They had called for help from a couple of stations and we were among the first to reach the spot. Also, we did everything on our own — bringing out the hose pipe, opening the nozzle and dousing the fire,” she says proudly.
Her colleague Asha Kumanwat (35) believes women and men should work together as a team. “My husband also works in the service. I saw him and joined the force.”
Jaipur even has an all-women’s fire station in Jyotiwada. Lady fireman Savitri Atal (30) from the station says, “Auraten mardon ke kandhon se kandhen milake chal sakti hain (Women are capable of matching steps with men)… Women should have the confidence in themselves. I have held the water hose nozzle, which is among the most difficult tasks in firefighting, for 4-5 hours at a stretch.” She says women victims are sometimes more comfortable with them.
The Mumbai Fire Brigade recruited 13 lady firemen and three fire officers in 2012. Recently, 125 women have qualified after various physical tests. “When inducted, the brigade will be the first in India to have such a large contingent of women. I will make it compulsory for all other fire brigades in Maharashtra to follow as well. I am proud to say that women are on par with the men,” says Maharashtra fire service director and Mumbai chief fire officer, Prabhat Rahangadale.
During selection, women get concessions in terms of physical fitness and a few tests are modified, fire officers say. But after selection, women and men are trained in exactly the same way and put in the same squad.
“Women are physically and mentally fit to firefight. Though they are biologically better survivors, social milieu hampers their chances. That is something we should work on. Women should be groomed to eliminate all differences. They should be counselled well in terms of exactly what the occupation entails and educated and trained accordingly,” says director professor and head of community medicine, Maulana Azad Medical College, Dr Sunila Garg.
DFS chief fire officer Atul Garg agrees. When women can wrestle, they can definitely firefight, he says. “There is no ban legally. Anybody can apply to DFS.”
With a few infrastructure changes such as separate barracks for women to stay during the night, they can be absorbed, he says.
So, why hasn’t DFS recruited women?
“Since nobody has applied for it, we haven’t thought about it. Maybe women don’t apply because of the difficult nature of the job. They have to go face-to-face with fire,” says Garg. Also, the government did not give them such directions, he says.
DFS director GC Mishra, however, feels women may be better suited for fire prevention activities such as inspection and communication within the service.
“When women fly combat aircraft, they are not exposed to public hazards and crowds. In firefighting, local crowds can be hostile. At JJ clusters, my men even get beaten up. Until the day our society becomes more civilised, it is not advisable to recruit women firefighters,” he says.