Firefighter Harshini Proves Taking The Heat Isn’t Only Men’s Business

There are people who put more than a wrinkle in the social fabric but never came under the spotlight to raise them a thousand claps. When Bernard Malamud said, “Without heroes, we are all plain people. and don't know how far we can go,” he didn’t mean that we can’t go far. He meant we won’t have people who will carry on the value of true heroism and goodwill with us. Meet Harshini Kanhekar, whose story might have never come to be known, India’s first women firefight buried deep under the appreciation-deprived profession that saves lives every day. 

When things took a turn for the worst at a shoe factory in Delhi, every news channel jumped on an opportunity to shine the bright flashes on the rescue mission. Shastri Nagar was up in chaos and it was just another incident, another coverage, another headline for that day. But nobody noticed that hustling among the many muscular bodies in the operation was a brave woman who was hustling a fight. She was a first, and today, we’re telling you her story. 

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Stepping into the pool of stereotypes 

38-year-old Harshini is a mother of a three-week-old boy who had made the Nation more proud than praised for. Landing at the NFSC at a time when there was no amenities for women, even a dedicated washroom, her journey from Mehsana to Mumbai proves that the she-side can fight fire just as well. "This was never my childhood dream. In fact, I wanted to join the Armed Forces. I wanted a job that would let me don a uniform and fire college would exactly let me do that. I didn't know it was a males' college. I could feel all the eyes were on me. There is General Post Office right next to the college. The admin department thought that I wanted to go to the GPO but entered the college premises accidentally," Harshini told India Times during an interview. 

Landing at the NFSC was quite easy as compared to the struggle she faced during her three and a half-year-old residency. With no facility for women to reside, she took special permission from the Home Ministry about staying at home. "That was still doable! The college had no changing rooms for women and we were required to change uniforms more than once a day. I had to find empty classrooms to do that. It wasn't feasible all the time," says Harshini.

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“If I fail, I fail all women out there”

Hailing from a traditional family in Nagpur, she was always supported by her family and was encouraged to chase her dreams. But her dream wasn’t just for her, but for all the women out there who are willing to take a step ahead in life but couldn’t because they aren’t recognized. "It didn't although I always felt it was my full-time responsibility to represent my gender. If I fail, I fail all women out there," she said. 

Her first big encounter and a challenge that she faced was in 2005 it took 6 hours for the firefighter's team to exhaust the case. "We attended six fire calls that day but the most difficult one was in Shastri Nagar, Delhi when a shoe factory caught fire," says Harshini. During that task, she was posted at an offshore rig and was the first women who got to work at that position. "The situation was dangerous but I was up for it. The sad part was to cope with the fact that there was no infrastructure for women. There were no ladies' room or toilets despite the fact that some women were posted at offshore rigs," sighs Harshini.

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Opening up about how she feels about the recognition coming in so late, she proved that what mattered to her was her dream, not the fame. "I didn't get any recognition when I was at Mehsana. And it didn't bother me either. I became a fire engineer for myself and not for the fame. However, I started getting attention when I shifted to Mumbai a few years ago. If I am honest, yes there has been a big delay on the media's part to recognize me. But I don't mind," concludes Harshini.

Heroes like her aren’t often inscribed in famed books or don’t get a chance to be on TV to reach masses with their story. But their experiences mean more than just a headline for coverage. People like Harshini can spark and a ray of hope and inspiration that can literally change someone’s life. Her story can become a realization for someone to head toward their dreams, or a hint to start working on them for others.  

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