In Photos: Fighting Fire Is a 24x7 Job, These Men Do It With Ease
On International Firefighter’s Day, here’s sneak-peek into their every day lives .
For an average firefighter in the Uttar Pradesh fire service, it’s difficult to answer when their day starts, let alone when it ends. Fighting fire is a 24x7 job, but a motley bunch of firemen at Noida’s Sector 2 police fire station stride on with an easy smile on their faces.
On International Firefighter’s Day, we take a glimpse into their lives.
“But it’s our job – saving property and human life. It’s what we have been trained for,” they say matter-of-factly, as I ask how they can conjure up such a sense of duty for complete strangers.
“What do you do in your free time?” I inquire. They only chuckle, as if to say, “What free time?”
The unit devotes itself to maintaining the equipment and machinery at the station. Parked under a shed in a large open area behind the offices, the fire truck (or fire fighting platform) and “disaster van” are their pride.
Liftmak’s majestic firefighting platform can lift the metallic cage mounted at its end to a height of 42 metres (approximately 130 feet). The cage helps to rescue people trapped on higher floors, or to spray water where it can’t reach otherwise.
The men ask if I want to go on top of the crane, and laugh delightedly when I look absolutely mortified at the thought.
“Aap soch bhi nahi sakte waha uppar akele khade ho kar kaisa lagta hai. Hawa itni tez chalti hai! (You can’t even imagine what it’s like to stand up there alone. The wind hits you so hard),” says Mukesh Kumar Sharma, one of the older men in the unit.
Make Way for the ‘Disaster Van’
A bright yellow vehicle is brought out of the shed – the "disaster van" seems to be these firemen’s beloved. The van is primarily where all the possible equipment to fight fire is kept, other than the water hose.
“It can cut through beams or trees if they’re obstructing, it has an overhead light, chemical suits, tools to break open doors...” the men parrot on, as they gather in a group around the van, describing its ‘magic’ with childlike enthusiasm.
Retired, but Remembered With Pride
Parked in the corner is a Bronto 330 – a fire truck that has served its time, and is now waiting to be auctioned. It came into service in 1984, and was brought from Italy to a fire station in Lucknow. “Vilayati hai – iska steering bhi ulti taraf hai (It’s foreign, even the steering is on the other side),” the men say with fondness.
The Summer Is Busier, Harder
The summers have been hard on these firemen. With at least five or six fires to douse a day, they hardly get to sleep in the peak summer months.
“Abhi toh humne khana bhi nahi khaya, par agar siren baj gaya toh bina khana khaye hi duty par jana padega (we haven’t even eaten yet, but if the siren goes off, we’ll leave everything and go),” says 23-year-old Manjeet Kumar. “30 se 50 second mein hum raaste par hote hai (we hit the road in 30 to 50 seconds),” he adds.
Leaves are hard to come by – a simple leave application takes at least three days to process, and even then, it may or may not be accepted. Manjeet recalls how he couldn’t go back home even when his father was unwell – he was always on duty.
“Kabhi kabhi chhutti ke liye jhoot bolna toh majboori ho jati hai (sometimes lying to get a leave sanctioned becomes a compulsion),” confesses a fireman, on conditions of anonymity.
When a massive fire broke out in Noida Sector 11 recently, the men camped out at the site for three days, with no certainty of their next meal.
A grievance they seem to have is their perception in the public. “People need to understand we can’t just jump into the fire. They accuse us of delaying rescue or not going in time, but we have to assess the dangers before we go in,” says Devendra Singh, who has devoted 30 years of his life to the fire service.
“We’ve had to go in and pick up charred bodies with our own hands. It’s not easy, most people would cover their mouth in disgust,” says Kuldeep Kumar, the Fire Officer at the station.
Not just the firemen, but even their families are constantly on duty. Though all the firemen and their families live behind the station – in the quarters provided by the department – there have been several missed PTAs, birthdays and days of eating dal without “tamaatar ya tadka (tomatoes or tempering)”. Their families are simply used to not having them around.
Mukesh describes how when his three-year-old daughter, Khushi, hears any siren (even if it’s not a fire siren), she’s up and about, practically pushing her father out the door to go douse a fire.
While Mukesh is lucky to have a family at home to go back to, not everyone has that kind of comfort. Manjeet, and several others in the service who are not married, live on their own.
“Don’t you get lonely?” I ask. Manjeet only laughs, half embarrassed to admit what he’s about to – “Ab toh madam, yehi humari family hai (now, this is our family)”.
(PSA: In case of a fire emergency in Noida, dial 0120-2521111)
(This was first published on 4 May 2017 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark International Firefighters' Day)
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