Meet Mumbai’s women firefighters
Ahead of Diwali, we meet the women who make up the ranks of the first gender-integrated fire brigade in Maharashtra, doing justice to a difficult, yet rewarding, career choice
Sunita Baban Patil is checking station ledgers in a crisply pleated navy-blue sari and white cotton blouse. Her flip-flops have too much pink in them to be regulation, but in all fairness the protocol for a maternity uniform for the Mumbai fire brigade isn’t yet set in stone. Thirty-year-old Patil, who is expecting her first child next month, is one of only three women assistant station officers (ASOs) at the force’s headquarters in Byculla. They are in their sixth year on the job—the first women to join the Mumbai fire brigade in the service’s 130-year history.
The women recruited to the force since 2011, fewer than two dozen until this summer, work 8-hour shifts at the venerable Byculla station. Their workplace’s history is written on its walls, covered by rolls of honour, plaques and murals that commemorate the names and faces of its great leaders and brave martyrs—all men. By the end of this year, however, the brigade’s ranks will swell with the addition of 60-70 firewomen, who will begin work across Mumbai’s 34 fire stations as they graduate from their nerve-wracking six-month training. Part of a push to fill the ranks of a rapidly changing force, they will join the first generation of the city’s gender-integrated fire brigade—the only one in Maharashtra so far.
Like all government jobs, the fire services represent a solid opportunity for young women—respectability, a steady salary, and a shot at making something of yourself in the big city. There is, it is true, a greater chance of encountering suicide scenarios, animals frightened out of their minds and actual corpses than most other branches of municipal service.
So you have to be physically and mentally strong. You must sign up between the ages of 20-25. You must be at least 162cm tall (172, if you’re a man), and weigh “not even 100 grams less" than 50kg. At recruitment, you have to run a gruelling 200m track, and then make a 19ft-high leap from a drill tower to convince trainers to take a chance on you.
Then there’s the enhanced risk of death and injury, but that’s what you train for when your instructors make you crawl blind through the service’s unsettling new simulator. It’s why you crawl, with a 13kg breathing apparatus unit on your back, through an obstacle course in a cage full of smoke, fighting back panic at the sound of falling buildings and lung-shrivelling heat, protecting the rescue dummy with your body. For the rest of your career, you will be putting others’ lives before your own, “aakhri dam tak", as the instructor puts it: until your last breath.
Patil, who is on “light duty" before she goes on maternity leave (six months, paid, like all Maharashtra government employees), was a 24-year-old from Nerul when she went to the recruitment centre one afternoon in 2011. Only one other young woman had cleared the tests all morning. “I was ready to run off when she came through," laughs Shubhangi Bhor, 29, now Patil’s fellow ASO at Byculla.
Both cleared the additional requirement for officer candidates—a first-class bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Bhor, like most women recruits to the fire brigade, is not from Mumbai—she is a native of Rajgurunagar, Pune. She responded to a newspaper recruitment ad and a confidence-boosting phone call from an uncle in the fire services.
This, it seems, is a common theme among Byculla’s firewomen: Rohini Avhad joined the force when her daughter was just 2 because a brother-in-law called to tell her to look at it as a good opportunity. The father of firewoman Chhaya Pawar, a 21-year-old who joined the service a few weeks ago, helped her get her application together, and sent her off from Yavatmal.
Of all the women interviewed for this story, among the Byculla staff and the recruits currently in training at the regional command centre in Wadala, not one claimed that their families or friends opposed their choice of career. For all that their working life is filled with adventure, there are in-laws, children, long commutes and EMIs, just like everybody else. Veterans like Bhor and Patil have learnt to internalize their feelings about the extraordinary things they encounter every day. Having family means that sometimes there’s someone to listen to their story once their shift ends. “You just have to talk about it sometimes," Bhor says.
“The male trainees who come from Titvala or Kalyan haven’t woken up an hour early to wash the dishes and pack their own lunches before they come in," a training officer at the Wadala fire station says drily. “That, if you really want to know, is the big difference between the men and women."
“When the city flooded in 2005, the fire brigade didn’t have a single boat," says Prabhat Rahangdale, chief fire officer, Mumbai fire brigade. “Today we have a whole fleet. I could barely swim 12 years ago, but I’m a strong swimmer now."
It’s a way to explain the urgency with which both technology and personnel must answer the unique challenges of protecting Mumbai. The city floods with increasing severity in the rains. Its old trees are uprooting themselves. Its real estate is cracking under the strain. Yet it swells every day, finding new and horrifying ways to make demands on its environment, taking in new migrants pushed out of India’s other disaster zones. It simply won’t do for the fire brigade to feel like a relic of Mumbai’s past: In Rahangdale’s view, it has to function as the first line of defence against the future.
So complex are these challenges that there is a sense, among the senior officers of the fire brigade, that gender integration is a non-issue; a no-brainer. Some feel a paternal interest in the subject. “Not offering equal opportunities—that would be like treating my daughter differently from my son," Rahangdale says. “How can I do that?"
In truth, you have to, at least a little. In the first weeks, many girls just can’t keep up with the boys on the track, where you must run 200m ten times first thing in the morning. They have “women’s problems", a euphemism for menstruation only one senior officer permitted himself to use; others conveyed the message through meaningful silences. The recruitment ad can be the first time some women even hear about the brigade, and moving to Mumbai is a culture shock their upbringing hasn’t prepared some of them for.
“We didn’t even know what the work really was," admits Swati Shinde from Kolhapur, four months into her training at Wadala. Mumbai was difficult, boring, daunting and tough, her fellow trainees say, describing their first lonely weeks. Now, they say, they understand it better. It means relief and healing for humans and animals in pain. It means helping someone even if they can’t ask you for help. Most of all, it means respect for their uniform and position.
Many of these cadets functioned as support staff and apprentices, working on the sidelines of the Memonwada (in Bhendi Bazaar) accident at the end of August, when heavy rain caused the collapse of a 117-year-old building, killing 33. “People were so happy to see us," Tejaswini Gaikwad, Shinde’s batchmate, says. “We understood, then, how much we are needed."
Ordinary citizens, they say, are usually delighted to see firewomen come to the rescue. “They stop short when they see us, but we get many thumbs-up signs and ‘keep it up!’ shouts when they catch our eye," Patil says. Rahangdale sums it up, eyebrows rising to convey the universal expression for “my mind is blown": “‘Wow!’ That’s how everybody reacts."
Rescuing women becomes easier in conditions where women may be hesitant to take assistance from firemen, the officer-in-charge at the Wadala command, Vishnu Sangale, points out. “Sometimes women can go into spaces that men cannot." The feminine touch is always useful, even if sometimes it’s just for shock value. “The other day, we were at a fire in a 12-storey building in Mahalaxmi, and some of the men in the building seemed ready to burn to death with all the files and property they were losing," Bhor says. “The deputy CFO (chief fire officer) looked up when we arrived and shouted, ‘A girl has come to save your life—buck up!’"
“We have done more to upgrade the force in the last two years than we did in my 24 years in the service before that," says Rahangdale, who assumed his post last year. Increasing recruitment has been a primary concern, which is why the Mumbai fire brigade has recruited 774 people into the force this year alone—a big jump from previous years. To this end, the few women recruited to the force before this summer may have been a useful pilot scheme. When Bhor and Patil were recruited, their male trainers had to grapple with designing their training to match that of male cadets, while accommodating gender differences sensitively. Now, men and women train in mixed groups or in close proximity and conduct practice drills together. Every station in Mumbai, say Rahangdale and Sangale, is ready with new infrastructure for women staff, from changing rooms to restrooms. “I even considered an all-woman station," Rahangdale says. “But you need both men and women on a team."
Women may make barely 10% of recruits, and remain a minority in a force. Their number will be nearly 3,000 by December. To graduate to senior ranks, ASOs must pass a Grade-I qualification, or hope to be selected by their bosses to undergo officer training at the National Fire Service College in Nagpur. With all the modesty of junior officers, Bhor and Patil shy away from discussing their ambitions. Will Mumbai ever have a woman fire chief? At Wadala, Sangale frowns. “Why not?" he asks.
In spite of the big hiring push, gender ratios are likely to remain unbalanced for some time, a scenario that typically heightens risks such as institutional bias and workplace harassment. But there’s “no room for indiscipline" on his team, Rahangdale says. “If someone thinks or behaves differently from how they are expected to, they can get out."
At Byculla, the mood appears to be brighter. “Our colleagues are really helpful," Patil says. “Everyone mixes so freely that even being a lone woman on the night shift doesn’t make us feel insecure. We know we’re all in this together."
During Diwali week, this will be truer than ever. Every year, when the city fires up its crackers and lanterns, the Byculla fire station calls its staff in to work around the clock to answer the sharp jump in fire emergencies. No leave on holidays, no going home. They will celebrate the festival by running into burning homes, and there’s only one way to survive that—with all hands on deck.