By Nancy Nais
KUCHING, July 9: Jumping off a red truck and running towards a blazing building wearing fire-resistant clothing as armour and armed only with a water hose is an image that is traditionally associated with men.
Not many would assume that under the helmet, heavy jackets, and hefty breathing apparatus are female firefighters.
Together with their male comrades, they battle fires to save buildings and property, rescue victims regardless of who he or she is, conduct special rescue services such as cutting rings, pipes, trees that block paths, rescue animals and many more extraordinary cases.
Malaysia’s first batch women firefighters
Back in 1984, when Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba) Malaysia began to recruit women into the force, six women from Sarawak took up the challenge, forming part of the country’s first batch of female firefighters.
Servia Lahok was only a 19-year-old teenager while Norsinah Bujang was 20-years-old in October 1984 when they joined Bomba as recruits.
When Servia went through the interview and interrogation by senior fire officers, questions such as “Do you really think you’ve got the physical strength to handle this type of work?” and “Why should we invest in you when later on in life you might have different priorities?” were thrown at her.
Her reply was straight and honest: “Well sir, I need a job and I am interested in serving the community. If you train and guide me correctly, then that shouldn’t be a problem.”
Recalling her training moments, Servia shared about when a large number of people left their training midway because they couldn’t take the pressure anymore, but each and everyone of them were advised by their trainers to stay on.
She and Norsinah persevered, and even ended up inspiring some of their fellow female trainees to keep pushing forward.
Norsinah, now 55, said they never realised then they were the country’s first batch of women firefighters, until much later.
“We were never told about it. When we joined as recruits, we trained together with the rest of the men. We did everything that was in the module, equally as the rest. It was only after 10 years or so, then we knew about it when we saw our pictures in the newspapers,” she said, while smiling at Servia as both were recounting their experiences as recruits to DayakDaily.
After six months of gruelling training at the department’s academy located in the heart of the city, Servia and Norsinah successfully earned the right to become firefighters.
Servia was not only awarded as the best female recruit from that pioneer batch, she also became the first Bidayuh woman from the Dayak community to enter Bomba and was also part of the country’s first batch of trained paramedic firefighters.
After completing their training at the academy which also served as Kuching’s one and only fire station back then, both of them began their career at the same place, which has since been renamed Padungan fire station.
It was also at this fire station that many fond memories were made for these two as it was their first base. Both women proudly hold their heads high as members of the pioneer batch of Malaysian female firefighters, even until today.
When asked if she was really strong enough to do “what is essentially a man’s job”, Servia said the work was physically and emotionally gruelling but the camaraderie outweighed the isolation.
Servia, who is now 54, is married to fellow firefighter officer Law Poh Kiong, whom she met not long after joining the force.
She described her 35 years in the service as exciting, adventure-filled, stressfule and gruesome.
“The call-outs to horrific road accidents, houses, buildings, forest fires, suicides and the grief of seeing dead victims and their family members affected by fire, drowning and accident were unforgettable. Back then, there wasn’t much special services such as rescue animals or even weird cases like rings stuck on male private parts,” Servia chuckled.
Norsinah explained that back at the station then, little was discussed about the emotional impact and daily trauma of the job.
“It wasn’t that kind of environment yet we would almost have a sixth sense,” she acknowledged.
For her, the job has always been a dream come true despite its inherent dangers.
The prospect of working alongside with men too did not faze her enthusiasm.
“Once I started, I was determined not to fail. I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be the weakest link.’ We were also able to take care of each other without saying too much, whether it was a wink or just giving Muslim firefighters like myself space to pray during praying time. There’s a real emotional responsibility that comes with the job,” she said.
Sharing a funny incident when both of them had to rush off to a forest fire, Norsinah said it was between 2007 and 2009 when Servia was the shift supervisor.
“I was praying at that time, when the emergency alarm rang. I immediately changed my clothes and hop into the firetruck because our job requires us to respond fast. After completing our duties at the fire scene, I took out my fire suit, and it was only then I realised I wore my inner clothes up side down. Everyone had a good laugh including myself,” she said.
Servia said she never felt like a woman among men, instead, it was a firefighter among firefighters.
“Being a woman, whether that meant laughing or crying, the guys would laugh, but they were so proud of me. It goes to show that if we are given a chance, we are strong enough. If a woman really wants to do something, nothing will stop her.”
Servia opined that women can tackle any job and take up any profession of their choice.
“I have no doubt in my mind that our women out there will be physically able to do anything and everything every other firefighter here, in this job is required to do,” she said.
Servia and Norsinah want women to know that with a little determination, they can do just about anything and this should serve as proof.
“If you set your mind to something and you really want to do it, go out and do it. It can happen,” they said.
Meanwhile, Housing and Local Government (KPKT) minister Zuraida Kamaruddin recently said out of the 14,000 members of Bomba Malaysia, just over 200 people or five per cent are women.
She urged more women to join the force, saying that there is room for them because if there are certain cases like trauma and natural disasters, sometimes women’s involvement is needed, especially in specific areas, including in the Emergency Services Assistance Unit (EMRS) to handle fire, flood and emergency cases involving women and children. — DayakDaily