What does a firefighter look like? The image that pops up in most heads involves tall, muscular men with red caps rushing into columns of fire. However, for Kerala-born Remya Sreekantan, this visual isn't just a hyped-up fallacy, it is a gendered stereotype that she has spectacularly smashed.
The 28-year-old firefighter and mother of one laughs as she reveals her weight - 55 kilos. She is calm, affable and recalls with clarity the brutal physical training she had to undergo to become a firefighter.
In November, Remya became south India's first and only woman airport firefighter, qualifying with 90 men in her batch to join Airport Authority of India’s fire services department. She is also one among three women – the other two are from north and west zones -- to break into the hitherto men-only space of firefighting in India by clearing the exams.
"It was entirely accidental,” Remya begins. An MTech graduate, she was an assistant professor at a reputed college in Thiruvananthapuram between 2015 and 2017. When she got pregnant, she decided to resign and take a break. But less than a year after her daughter’s birth, the 28-year-old began to seriously prepare, and took competitive exams like Kerala Public Service Commission exams, UPSC, and the like.
“On one of those days, a recruitment email for a junior assistant in the AAI fire services popped up in my mail box. My daughter was barely a year old when the opportunity came my way but I decided to go ahead and train for the test,” the native of Marady in Thiruvananthapuram tells TNM.
The hiring test for the position of junior assistant in AAI's Fire Services has several components. Candidates are required to attempt a written test worth 100 marks, with a 50% cut off to begin with. The online exam is held in four different centres across south India. On qualifying this round, the candidates undergo a medical examination (height, weight and eye check-ups), a driving test on a Mahindra Bolero, and a physical test - which decides whether you clinch the job or not.
"I was always confident about the written bit. But for a person who was never played sports and wasn’t physically active while growing up, I was a bit sceptical about passing the physical exam with flying colours," Remya says.
Moreover, there are 91 seats and no separate quota for women, Remya says. “You have to train in order to get as strong or stronger than the male candidates. Most of these guys are at an advantage as they are well built physically. Even if they don't perform well in the written test, they are sure to excel in the physical test," she says.
However, not one to be cowed down by challenges, Remya decided to dedicatedly prepare for the task ahead of her. The 28-year-old joined a fitness centre in the neighbourhood and trained three hours a day six days a week for three months. In the centre, she trained in rope climbing, pole climbing, sprinting, ladder climbing, and running with 40 kilo weights.
"The physical test marks you out of 100 on the five events mentioned above. And it took me nearly 1.5 months to even learn how to climb most of these things," Remya says. Added to this exercise, she also hit a nearby gym for weight training to improve her arm and core strength – essential for climbing ropes and poles.
In February 2018, Remya cleared the physical test scoring 78 on 100 marks. The cut off mark was 60. With this achievement, the 28-year-old officially found her name on the list of selected candidates and soon enough, was whisked off to Delhi for a four-month training under the AAI.
Training with AAI
During the four-month-long training in the capital, Remya recalls being the sole woman among around 100 joinees.
"I was treated just like any other joinee, with zero biases about me being a woman. It was honestly the first time I realised that men could treat women with so much respect," she tells TNM.
"I was never left out of any activity and it was an extremely inclusive atmosphere. The only challenge was having to leave my daughter back in Thiruvananthapuram and stay in Delhi for months," she says.
Remya also received plenty of support from her family.
"My husband, his parents and my parents were all encouraging me to go forward with it. When they knew I got selected, they were a bit tense. But when I decided to go, they were more than happy for me. My husband stayed back in Thiruvananthapuram to take care of my daughter," she adds.
In November, the 28-year-old joined Chennai International Airport's fire services as a junior assistant. Once her accommodation is ready, the 28-year-old plans to bring her husband and daughter to the city to live with her.
"This job is not a cake walk," she says. It requires physical and mental agility and you need to be able to think on your feet, she adds.
"An aircraft carries 50,000 to 80,000 litres of fuel. The big carriers can even hold fuel of up to three lakh litres. So even a tiny spark can cause an explosion and you only have seconds to react," she explains; adding that when everybody runs away, firefighters have to run into the aircraft to rescue people.
That’s definitely a lot of risk and challenges, she admits. But should more women take up this job? Pat comes Remya's response: "Absolutely."