Besides landing her a husband and a 2.5-year-old son, her job in the fire brigade has also given 27-year-old Avhad newfound courage. “When I was just a normal girl, I would have gotten scared but now, I’ve found this inner strength to save people,” she says. “When the fire siren rings, I forget everything except that I am a fire fighter.”
Avhad is one of 116 female firefighters in the Mumbai Fire Brigade. This is the largest female contingent across India though women make up just 6% of the force. The brigade also has three female fire officers out of a total of 180 officers. Last Saturday, two women fire fighters were hospitalized for the first time while responding to a blaze at a chemical unit in Worli. They showed symptoms of smoke inhalation and remained under observation at KEM Hospital before being discharged to recuperate at home.
“For me a fireman and a firewoman are the same,” says chief fire officer PS Rahangdale, adding that they get the same training, perform the same roles and respond to the same disasters.
Besides meeting certain minimum height and weight requirements – 162 cm and 50kg – potential female recruits must also run 800m in four minutes, jump from a height of 19 feet, run with a dummy weighing 45kg on their backs, and showcase their prowess at long jump, javelin throw, shot put, and climbing ladders. The fitness test for male recruits has slightly more stringent standards. For instance, they must run 800m in three minutes and also be adept at rope climbing.
Fire officer Shwetambari Ninad Shinde, 29, went through nine months of training at the Wadala centre before being accepted into the force. Each morning would begin with running and physical exercise, followed by fire drills, 2.5 hours of lectures and fire equipment training. In her batch of 26, Shinde was one of only three women.
Within months of joining the force, Shinde had to respond to a building collapse, which left 4-5 people dead, and make crucial decisions about how to tackle a blaze in a densely packed neighbourhood like Dharavi.
Shinde, who now works in the control room, says that initially there was skepticism among firemen about their female counterparts. However, watching women run into burning buildings without fearing for their safety has won over cynics. And at home, both Shinde and Awhad are raising young men, who are fascinated by their mother’s careers. While Shinde’s son loves fire engines and even got to sit in one recently; Avhad’s tot marches alongside his mother carefully following her commands: “Left, right, left”.