‘First Women Firefighter’ – The tagline that makes Harshini Kanhekar feel ‘proud passionate and responsible’

'First Women Firefighter' - The tagline that makes Harshini Kanhekar feel 'proud passionate and responsible'. Photo: Twitter.

New Delhi, August 3: Harshini Kanhekar, 37, India’s first woman firefighter proves that the popular belief of male or female dominated profession is a myth. She showed how to change the stereotyping attitude among Indians. Her determination and dedication towards her passion for the firefighting service gave a golden feather to the hat of Indian women community.

National Fire Service College (NFSC) of Nagpur have not seen a uniform-clad woman before Harshini Kanhekar walked in the gate in 2002. When she cleared the NFSC entrance examination, she was unaware of the fact that she is going to be the first woman to set foot into that profession. As she got inside the college campus, she didn’t notice that it was all men’s college, her eyes were set on to the red building of the campus.

A man from the administration department of NFSC was surprised to see a girl filling the admission form. Foreseeing the difficulties she has to face in this field, he informed Harshini to choose Army or Air Force college where there would be facilities for women students. Harshini’s passion for the job couldn’t be pulled down by anyone, rather the administration officer’s words strengthened her ambition.

She cleared the UPSC styled entrance exam and became one among the 30 eligible candidates. Going through a medical examination, the doctors handling the medical test also asked Harshini, if she could really face the dangers hidden in this field. At the final stage of the interview, one of the panellists addressed her as the Kiran Bedi of the fire services. Clearing all the formalities, Harshini reached the stage where wearing the fire uniform was just a fingertip away.

On the first day of her college, the same administration official who had earlier warned her about the unsafe conditions for women in the field, greeted her, “you’re always welcome to our college Ma’am”. Harshini took a decision that she would help all those women who wish to join fire services course. Getting into the college was not her ultimate goal, but to live her dream, accepting all challenges.

She says that she had to prove herself or else the society will again categorise the job into a male profession. This could close the door before other women who wish to join this field. Thereby, she went through all the difficult tasks in the course which had no gender bar, dealing with heavy water hoses, suction hoses and mock drills with dummies. She used to practise herself from early morning in the store room so that she will have the knowledge of using the tools and wouldn’t turn a mockery in front of others.

As a woman stepping into NFSC was for the first time, they had to make relevant provisions for Harshini. Special permission from the Home Ministry was taken to allow Harshini to go home after classes as the seven-semester course in fire engineering are given a residential coaching.

She said that her source of inspiration was Shivani Kulkarni, the first female pilot of the Indian Air Force from Vidarbha. She said that she was fascinated with the uniform when she found the officers at NCC wearing their uniform with dignity and pride.

The most difficult case during Diwali

Life as a firefighter was not at all an easy way to go. She handled one of her most difficult cases in 2005 during Diwali celebrations. “A shoe factory at Shastri Nagar in Delhi caught fire. A rocket entered the shop located on the upper floor of the building and sparked a fire in shoe boxes containing combustible material. The fire was so huge, the building started cracking. We climbed the opposite building and tried dousing the fire, but it did not work. We broke a wall in the adjacent building to fight the fire, but the smoke kept rising. We put our lives at stake by climbing the cracked building. After a 6-hour long operation from midnight to morning, we successfully got things under control,” she said.

In 2006, Harshini joined Mehsana fire station in Gujarat, the second largest onshore production of the Oil and National Gas Corporation. In 2010, she got transferred to Mumbai drilling services.

“I am very thankful to my management who encouraged and believed that a woman could handle offshore drilling services. Until my posting, no women were given the chance to serve in offshore rigs, which was unfair. It was only after 2013 that more women were encouraged to take up these services. Under offshore operations, one has to board a helicopter, conduct auditing, maintain follow-up and take full responsibility. This infrastructure was unavailable to women for the longest time but now we’ve come a long way,” she told the media.

Harshini is also a skilled biker. Her recent bike rides include travelling to the world’s highest motor-able road, Leh Ladakh’s Khardung La pass and to Kargil. She chose her biker buddy as her life partner.

Harshini said that she is fortunate to have supportive parents, great instructors who always stood beside her to help her reach the goal. Harshini’s life makes the women all around the nation to realise their potential and come out in flying colours.