“I worked in a thermal power plant and we were on the 3rd floor, fighting a fire which was very huge. Suddenly, there were tremors and I took a decision to move out. When we moved out, within seconds, the floor came down.”

The quick decision of this fire service officer saved many lives that day. But this wasn’t the first time this officer was saving lives. The officer, Meenakshi Vijaykumar, has been instrumental in saving lives in over 250 fire calls, the 2004 tsunami in south India, 2015 Chennai floods, and as I write this, the officer is helping save people affected by the Vardah cyclone in Chennai.

Meenakshi Vijayakumar
Meenakshi Vijayakumar
Picture Credit: New Indian Express

Meenakshi Vijaykumar is India’s first woman to join the fire service department. In her mid-30s, Meenakshi, an associate professor of English, wanted to fulfill her dream of wearing a uniform. She decided to take the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission’s Group 1 examination in 1997-1998. She wanted to do so before had turned 35. She had to wait for almost four years before there was a vacancy for women in the fire service department. Interestingly, she got to know about her selection only after a news agency reached her house to cover her story.

She was made the first fire officer by the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa.

Meenakshi Vijayakumar
Meenakshi with APJ Abdul Kalam
Picture Credit: Meenakshi Vijayakumar Blog

We spoke to Meenakshi Vijayakumar to know about her journey. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:

On Her Training

In 2003, I got into service. From then on, I trained with men and the training was no different for us. It was the same training which was given to us and my mental stature was that of an officer and not a woman. It doesn’t matter whether you are a male or a female, but you have to have it in your mind, that you will work any which way. Be it a difficult terrain or fire call or a rescue call, you should think that you are an officer first and then think about your gender.

On Representation of Women in Fire Services

It is a State subject and States needs to have vacancies. Women generally have a block in their mind about this being a difficult task and they aren’t able to think otherwise. Every single day women play with fire and one of the world’s most dangerous gas, which is LPG.

So the block needs to be removed. They can easily work in this field if they have the determination and courage.

Slowly, the government is inducting women into fire services. The media will have to create awareness among women because they are physically and mentally strong. Awareness needs to be created that women do work in this profession.

Challenges Faced

Training is 24/7 and 365 days! Being a woman, you have to be doubly prepared and you have to give your 200%. They will not accept a woman being on the top and giving them orders unless and until you are absolutely sure about yourself and you know your job 200%. People are going to heckle first, they are not going to accept you at first. The acceptance will come later when they know they are dealing with a tough officer, both in mind and physique.

Support From Family

It is a balance you have to maintain. It is not that you are not supposed to cook or not supposed to be a homemaker. You should have a balance, and that is all. It is not being a feminist that is going to work for you. It is creating an atmosphere at home which is going to make them feel that yes, you are also an officer, a mother and a wife. It is very easy when you tell them and you show in the way that they understand. It is always easy to create a balance.

Meenakshi Vijayakumar
Meenakshi receives an award from veteran singer S. Janaki
Picture Credits: Meenakshi Vijayakumar Blog

What Keeps Her Going

When you save lives, it is a reward. We follow the motto, ‘We serve to save’ and I think it is better than any other department. I wouldn’t bargain this for anything else because here you are ready to save lives by giving yours! I am absolutely satisfied being in this department.

Though SheThePeople doesn’t quite agree with her saying there is no need for girls to be feminists, we are proud of Meenakshi Vijayakumar who has set the bar higher for girls to follow.