Don’t Let Anyone Tell You You Can’t: India’s 1st Woman Firefighter

Once when a man told her firefighting is a man’s job, Harshini responded with actions. “I’ve been winning respect.”

5 min read
 India’s first woman fire engineer Harshini Kanhekar is a role model.

Ever been told you couldn’t do something because it’s a “man’s job”? It’s time to shut the haters. For Women’s Day, we present you stories about women who’re acing conventionally male-dominated jobs and smashing ‘StreeOtypes’ along the way!

Dousing fires and saving people's lives, India’s first woman fire engineer Harshini Kanhekar is a role model fit for all the little Indian girls and boys of today.

Nagpur's darling daughter Harshini has smashed several stereotypes in her illustrious career spanning over a decade - from being the first woman to be accepted in a prestigious all gents’ college to winning innumerable awards for her steely grit in a profession that has largely been a male bastion. Harshini tells me that she has only one motto:

No job is reserved for any gender. If you are passionate, you must go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
“No job is reserved for any gender,” says Harshini.
“No job is reserved for any gender,” says Harshini.
(Photo Courtesy: Runa Mukherjee Parikh)

Go-getter Right From the Start

Always a feisty personality, Harshini participated in and won plenty of competitions and extra-curricular activities in school. But she went through a phase where nothing inspired her during her pre-university days. Calling it her darkest period, Harshini says,

I didn’t talk to anyone or participate in competitions. Soon, I was afraid of ending up just mediocre and slipping into oblivion.

To get her life back on track, she enrolled for a Bachelor of Science degree at the Lady Amritbai Daga (LAD) College, but started participating in everything this time round. She also joined the National Cadet Corps (NCC) and learnt how to rough it out in any condition, adapt according to environments and discovered, to her excitement, that she was more adventurous than tame.

Harshini’s i-card.
Harshini’s i-card.
(Photo Courtesy: Runa Mukherjee Parikh)

At the behest of a friend, she appeared for a UPSC-style examination for admission into a fire engineering course. By now, the only dream Harshini was nurturing was that of donning a uniform, and weeks later, she was accepted in the prestigious National Fire Service College in Nagpur.

This was a historic moment not just for the Nagpur girl but for the country as she was the first girl in the history of the college to have made it.

Her parents worried at first, but they soon learnt NFSC was the only one of its kind in all of Southeast Asia and was run by the Home Ministry.

Whenever people laud me for my courage, I tell them my parents are way braver than me; they let me study in an all gents’ college. They are the reason I stand tall.

A 24*7 Job, a Civil Soldier to the Nation

A photo of Harshini with her dog Lucky.
A photo of Harshini with her dog Lucky.
(Photo Courtesy: Runa Mukherjee Parikh)

The Mumbai-based fire fighter feels her job is nothing less than service to the nation.

I think a fire fighter is a civil soldier who is doing civil defense, not on the border but within the city limits round the clock. We are alert, prompt and quick decision makers. We are also a one man army – a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer all rolled into one because we are taught fire laws, act as paramedics and study basic engineering along with fire and rescue subjects.

The firefighter whose first job was a cylinder burst in Shirdi, says risking one’s life is the biggest threat she has learnt to fight everyday.

It’s a 24*7 job as fire control rooms function day and night. Every fire incident means entering buildings from the point where people are evacuated - so burns and mortality are our biggest hazards.
Harshini has been felicitated several times.
Harshini has been felicitated several times.
(Photo Courtesy: Runa Mukherjee Parikh)

Acutely aware of how she has reigned over a male dominated job for years now, she is happy many more women have now entered firefighting services in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and the southern Indian cities.

Being the first woman in the college and in the service meant that I could not make mistakes as everyone’s eyes were on me. And I was ready for the responsibilities my title brought with it. But I have found incredibly encouraging instructors, seniors and colleagues in my journey.

The one time a man had urged Harshini to apply for the armed forces - telling her that firefighting was a man’s job - she had answered through her actions.

My response to his insult was that I got through one of the best colleges in the country as the first female student and have been winning awards and respect for my work ever since.

Harshini was honored by the NITI Aayog and United Nations with the Women Transforming India award in 2018. She was also the first woman to serve and handle operations in offshore rigs.

Harshini is an avid biker.
Harshini is an avid biker.
(Photo Courtesy: Runa Mukherjee Parikh)

The 40-year-old is an avid biker who has travelled to different parts of the country, either solo or together with her husband who is her best friend and also a biking enthusiast. They have recently had a child and Harshini has seen life change and routines go haywire since motherhood.

It’s the best feeling in the world really. But I will soon be back at my job with the new ‘josh’ and power motherhood has added in my life!

(Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an independent journalist with several national and international media houses like The Wire, Bust and The Swaddle. She previously reported for the Times of India. She is the author of the book 'Your Truth, My Truth ('. You can follow her at @tweetruna.)

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