Fire in her belly

Varsha Budhawant,one among only 13 firewomen in Mumbai,was among the rescuers at the Mont Blanc high-rise fire last month.

Written by Tanushree Venkatraman | Published: January 5, 2014 5:26 am

It’s a balmy winter morning in Byculla,a typical Mumbai locality,with high-rise apartment buildings and offices,and busy traffic. At the Mumbai Fire Brigade headquarters,a primary landmark in Byculla,Varsha Budhawant,a firewoman,boards a skylift and climbs 12 metres to the first level of a watch tower,as part of a mock rescue drill. She then uses a safety harness and jumps off from the tower,erected for the purpose of demos. Landing smoothly on the ground,she greets us with a smile,and says the exercise is “part of her everyday life”.

Budhawant,a petite 24-year-old wearing her blue-shirt-and-trousers uniform,is employed with the Mumbai Fire Brigade. She is among the only 13 firewomen with the 2,290-strong brigade. All of them are posted at the Byculla headquarters,which has a total of 150 personnel. As the numbers show,it’s not a profession many women take up. But Budhawant always “wanted to help people in trouble”. Inspired by her uncle,a police officer,and her brother,a schoolteacher,Budhawant left her village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra for Mumbai two years ago in order to pursue her dreams of “serving people”. A Class XII dropout,she cleared a theory and practical test to join the brigade. Admitting that she didn’t have a specific reason for joining the fire brigade,she adds: “Well,I have always loved adventure. I was quite active in sports in my school.”

She was among those sent to the spot at the 26-storey Mont Blanc building in Kemps Corner on December 13 after a major fire broke out. The blaze that followed killed seven people and left seven fire personnel injured.

When she reached with her team from Byculla,she says,one of the first tasks given to her was to help the injured firemen into an ambulance. After helping douse the fire along with her colleagues,she rushed inside to the staircase of the building to help people exit safely. “There was no time to think,just act,” she says.

She has been a part of other major rescue operations,such as after the Dockyard road building collapse this year,which claimed 61 lives,and the Mantralaya fire last year.

Though her duties mainly involve helping douse the fire,she was also a part of the “control post team”,which analyses the situation and directs fire personnel in dousing the fire,during the Mantralaya incident. Budhawant ran through the three floors of the Mantralaya,which were gutted,and helped save two people trapped on the third floor.

“We used a caged machine similar to a skylift in order to rescue the two people,” she says.

Budhwant says working in a male-dominated sphere is challenging. “Women are physically weaker than men,and it becomes taxing when you have to constantly compete with them. But I take it up as a challenge,I know I am capable of doing what a male colleague does,” she says. Are certain tasks allotted only to firemen? “This is a profession where we work mainly in times of emergency. At such times,nobody cares if you are a man or a woman. Rescuing people is our only agenda,” she says.

A fire-person is required to have a certain disposition. He/she has to be physically fit,emotionally bold,and mentally quick to react — something she learnt during her six-month training period. “I had to get into the habit of running for half an hour at a stretch,climb tall ladders and jump from high levels. I learnt that I could be emotional in my personal life,but once I wear my uniform,I have to be bold and ready to face any sort of emergency,” she says.

A normal day for her begins with the morning parade followed by mock drills and rescue demonstrations in the first half of the day. She is also responsible for ensuring that fire safety equipment is in place in the engines. “We can get an emergency call any minute. One has to be prepared all the time,” she says.

Budhawant has been living away from her family since moving to Mumbai. Though her parents — her father is a farmer and mother a home-maker — have been supportive,relatives and neighbours often comment on her profession,she admits,especially with regard to how she would find a spouse.

Well,Budhawant has trumped their apprehensions. She is getting married to Ashok Avhad,a fireman from the Dockyard office,this year. “His family have okayed our decision,” she says coyly.

Shopping for her upcoming wedding is one of her main occupations these days away from work. Budhawant admits she otherwise doesn’t have much time for hobbies or socialising,after spending two hours daily to commuting between her home in Titwala and Byculla. Weekends are spent doing household chores.

The best part of her job? Public appreciation,she says. “I had gone for an inspection last week. I was waiting near a car when two women patted me on my back. They congratulated me for being a strong woman. I am proud of my job and when I wear my uniform,I don’t think of the challenges. I just think of my duty towards the people,” she says.

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