From being judged for being a woman firefighter to inspiration for numerous girls to join the Mumbai Fire Brigade, 32-year-old Sunita Patil-Khot has come a long way.
The first batch female firefighter in the Mumbai Fire Brigade in 2012, Sunita never dreamt of being a firefighter but aspired to have a stable job in the pharma sector.
Sunita who belongs to a middle-class Maharashtrian family was studying MSc Chemistry and was simultaneously working in a Pharmaceutical company when her father’s friend pointed out a newspaper notice announcement of a recruitment drive by the Mumbai Fire Brigade.
“My father encouraged me to apply for the job since it was a government job. I applied for the job thinking it’s a 5 to 9 office job even if it was with Mumbai Fire Brigade,” said Sunita, assistant station officer, Byculla Fire Brigade. She passed all rounds including the physical fitness test followed by six-month-long nerve-racking training, recalls Sunita.
Apart from meeting certain minimum height and weight requirements of 162 cm and 50 kg potential female recruits must also run 800 metres in 4 minutes, jump from a height of 19 feet, run with the dummy weighing 45 kg on their back and showing their prowess at long jump, javelin throw, shot put, and climbing ladders. The fitness test for male recruits is slightly different as they have to run for a distance of 800 m in three minutes and also be adept at rope climbing.
Life changed for Sunita and 96 other women who came out of the first batch of women firefighters in Mumbai Fire Brigade back in 2012 with flying colours. Since then, there is no looking back. Eight years down the line, a firefighter Sunita is now married and has a 2.5-year-old son, juggling with family commitments, domestic responsibility and a challenges involving saving lives.
Sunita is one of the 125 female firefighters in the Mumbai Fire Brigade, the largest female contingent across India though women make up just 10% of the force.
Sunita is also one of the only three women assistant station officers (ASO) at the Mumbai Fire Brigade’s headquarters in Byculla. “The first few days of the training were hard. I seldom thought about why I had signed up for this, but the job is rewarding when people whose life you save look at you with respect. The feeling you are saving lives keeps me going. Yes I am a mother of a toddler and a wife and a daughter too but when the fire siren rings and when I am on a rescue operation I forget everything except that I am a firefighter,” Sunita said.
Another fire women recruited by the Mumbai Fire Brigade’s 2016 batch, Pooja Mohite said, “When we are out on a call, trying to save the trapped victims, most women refuse to be carried out by men. Sometimes women firefighters can go into spaces that firemen cannot. That is why in a society like ours, having firewomen is important. It is amazing when so many people congratulate us when they see us working on the field,” added Mohite, 25.
Like all government jobs, the fire services represent a great opportunity for young women -- a decent job with a steady salary, and a shot at fame and making it big.
Vaishali Rathod, a 27-year-old firefighter from the 2016 batch said she received the same training as her male counterparts did, which she said, actually was a motivation.
“We had to prepare ourselves physically and mentally since we were newbies. Our trainers were helpful and shared insights from their time on the field. We, too, are out there giving our best. We owe it to our uniform and our position,” said Rathod.
Prabhat Rahangdale, the Mumbai Fire’s chief fire office, said, “For me, a fireman and a firewoman are the same. The only difference is a fireman does not have to wake up two hours early to do the dishes or cook or give instructions to domestic help before getting ready for work. Today, every fire station in Mumbai is ready with new infrastructure for our women staff, from changing rooms to restrooms. There is no room for workplace harassment or institutional bias at the Mumbai Fire Brigade.”