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3rd October 1999

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Fiery females

Fiery females

  • Fiery females
  • Lots of body padded with lots of soul
  • Jarring notes, coughs and yawns amidst blossoming sounds
  • Telling the Japanese about Sinhala literature
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  • Kala Corner - By Dee Cee
  • Painting together to help others
  • Making a soap for the child
  • He came to Jaffna
  • That nagging thought
  • The Millennium Countdown
  • Valley of power
  • Constitution close to the heart of people
  • Purana villages lost in the mists of time
  • Cruising with Tom and Nicole
  • Like or loathe, it's classic Kubrick
  • Man on the moon
  • Natural instincts
  • All frills, nice cakes
  • Femina opens a Lankan page
  • Letters to the Edotor

  • Fiery females

    Moved by a spirit of adventure and challenge, these women firefighters are determined to show that they can do as good a job as their male colleagues. Wathsala Mendis reports

    Fiery females"Don't look down. Keep going. You're doing just fine," one was shouting above me. "Come on, you can do it," came another voice, two steps behind me. I was scared stiff in spite of the encouraging remarks. My heart was pounding wildly, my hands and feet were cold and numb. But there was no looking back. More than a hundred feet above the ground, crawling up a ladder I didn't dare do anything stupid.

    No, I was not trying my hand at some acrobatic feat. It was rather a desperate attempt on my part to bring out whatever was left of that tomboy spirit in me.

    But then this time I actually made it. Climbing up the very steep face of the high-rise tower at The Fire Service Department, used as the training ground for the rope rescue team which is made up entirely of women firefighters. Yes, for the first time in Sri Lanka a female firefighting unit has been set up under the auspices of the Sri Lanka Air Force.

    "It was during the Central Bank bomb blast that the idea first struck us. There were lots and lots of women who were trapped inside the building who needed extra special handling. Not that the men involved were any less compassionate towards them. But, you see, they always feel at ease with a female companion, especially at a time when they're so helpless, agitated and shocked. They find it easier to confide their problems in a woman. Hence the need arose for a women's wing," says Squadron Leader Kolitha Nissanka.

    In addition, the Fire Department also receives calls asking for its ambulance service from women who are in labour, to take them to hospital. The women's wing also comes in handy at such moments.

    Fiery femalesSo was born Sri Lanka's first female firefighting unit on October 13, 1997 with a cadre of 30 lively, energetic young women most of whom had applied for telephone operators or other clerical posts. When they heard the good news about the vacancies at the Fire Brigade, they jumped at the chance. The opportunity to rub shoulders with their male colleagues apart, they were charged with the idea of treading into a whole new territory. The challenge, the adventure spurred them on.

    "We had fun when we were undergoing training. Those days I used to laugh at anything and everything. At times I was almost hysterical. It was so bad the trainers had no option but to put cakes of soap in my mouth to control my laughter," said Niranjala Amarakoon, 23, from Kandy. Her first day at training turned out to be a memorable one, for she found the love of her life. "It was he who helped me during the fire-drill. I was a bit scared. But strangely his presence was a great relief to me. He encouraged and supported me all the way." And they've been happily married since then!

    For Shiranthi Rathnapala, another 23-year-old from Matale, joining the Air Force had been her dream all along. Coming from a conservative family where nobody was working in the forces and being the only girl sandwiched between brothers, she had to face stiff opposition from her parents who would not even hear of her joining the Air Force, let alone the Fire Brigade.

    "But I was determined and confident. My parents had to give in," Shiranthi's smile broadens. Now that you've finally made it, how do they feel? "They've come to accept it. I still remember how my mother cried at our passing out ceremony. She was so proud of me. So was my father. And you know what? After seeing me in action now my younger brother also wants to join the forces.

    "But just about anybody cannot survive in this field. It takes a lot of grit, stamina, courage, patience, and loads of discipline to become a firefighter, a good one at that. You have to be always on the alert, put in long, extended hours. In return, you get the maximum job satisfaction. When you help save somebody's life and see the grateful look on that person's face, that's what makes my day. You have to feel it, it's indescribable."

    Shiranthi does not just have the proverbial good looks but the gift of the gab as well.

    The girls are all praise for Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, Squadron Leader Kolitha Nissanka, and all their male counterparts who stood by them and supported them every step of the way. "We hope this will be a good influence on the women who are looking forward to joining this field. "One day our aim is to step out on our own and carry out a rescue operation successfully. Just to show that we women can do as good a job as our male colleagues can," they beam.

    No difference

    Fighting fires requires special training and proper equipment. When it comes to training, women fire- fighters undergo the same kind of rigorous training that men do.

    The recruits first have to follow a four-month basic course that turns a civilian into a servicewoman. All military aspects are covered and this is followed by a three-month "trade training" which is firefighting itself. Everything from how to operate firefighting equipment like fire extinguishers, pumps and hoses, how to handle hazardous materials, various rescue equipment and other firefighting tools, to a thorough knowledge of protective clothing including fire-resistant coats and pants, special boots, gloves, helmets, and breathing apparatus is taught. Fire prevention and safety as well as first aid are also included in the course.

    After this they are put into the field but, of course, have to undergo routine training and regular fire-drills. Various refresher courses are also on the cards within the next five-year period after which they'll be put through advanced training.

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