When disasters befell people, it is fireman T. Shajikumar who rushes to the rescue
By Shevlin Sebastian
One day, the Gandhi Nagar fire station received a distress call. About a kilometre from the station, a college student, Hema (name changed), had locked herself up in the kitchen, switched open the gas and vowed to commit suicide by lighting a matchstick. “The father called us and we went and broke down the door,” says fireman T. Shajikumar, 39. “She had a knife in her hand and was very angry. I told her, ‘Please don’t do anything drastic.’”
Her mother had died and her father had married a second time and the couple had gone to the Gulf. The father would send her money and Hema managed on her own for a few years. However, she fell into bad company and became a drug addict. In the end, when the couple returned from the Gulf and they tried to live together as a family, Hema could not adjust. “She was angry with everybody,” says Shajikumar. “However, we were able to disarm her.”
Today, Hema, 29, is perfectly normal, and goes past the station often on her way to the temple. “She always shows a lot of respect and gratitude towards me,” says Shajikumar. “Imagine, if she had lit the matchstick, not only would their house have blown up, but also the neighbouring houses as well.”
All this is part of the daily life of Shajikumar, who has been a fireman for the past eleven years. Among the many jobs he has done was to tackle the huge fire at Broadway in 2004 (he was there for three consecutive days), go down numerous wells, to save people, cows, dogs, cats, and buffalos, go under collapsed buildings to pull out trapped human beings and work with hydraulic cutters, to slice through twisted metal, to pull people out from bus-car collisions. Earlier, the fire services had to deal only with fire incidents, but ever since it was renamed as the Fire and Rescue Services in 2002, drownings and accidents have come under its purview.
In Kochi, fires occur because of a short-circuit or when garbage catches fire when
somebody carelessly throws a cigarette into the waste. “Unlike in the countryside, nobody will bother to douse the flame,” says Shajikumar. “All it needs is a bucket of water. City people are very selfish.” As is well known, the information about these disasters comes through phone number 101.
So what happens when you call 101? “As soon as the phone rings, we have to lift it up within three rings,” says K.S. Dinesan, 54, who sits at a table where there are numerous phones. “We will ask the details of the fire, the name and address and telephone number of the person who has called. Then we will call back to confirm if it is a genuine call.”
The reason for this is because the station receives hundreds of fake calls every day, especially by children. When children are taught first aid training, the teacher tells them the number for the police station (100), the fire station (101) and the ambulance (102). They encourage them to try these numbers. “It is a big problem for us,” says K.K. Shiju, 29, the station officer in charge. “I request the parents to tell the children not to make these calls.”
Meanwhile, as soon as a call is deemed genuine, Dinesh presses a ‘firebell’ switch. When the firemen hear it, in the dormitory or elsewhere, they rush to where Dinesh is sitting. Then, depending on what sort of fire it is or if it is an accident, a particular fire tender is selected. The five-member crew, which had been assigned to that tender during the morning roll call, immediately set out. The rule is that the fire tender has to leave the station within 60 seconds of the call.
So how do they tackle a fire? “Usually water is used,” says Shiju. “However, if it is an oil fire, we use a foam compound mixed with water, as it cuts off the oxygen.” The normal fire tender has a capacity of 4500 litres. “If the throttle of the hose is adjusted between 70 to 100 pounds, it takes 30 minutes to finish the water supply,” he says. “Usually, this is enough to douse the fire. If it is a bigger fire, we immediately call for reinforcements.”
In the Gandhi Nagar fire station there are 27 firemen. Each fireman does a shift of 24 hours; this is followed by a rest day of 24 hours, on which they can be called, if there is an emergency. After six days of duty, they get a day off. The fireman’s salaries start at Rs 5250 and can go all the way to Rs 8390, depending on grades and promotions.
In Gandhi Nagar fire station, Shajikumar is one of the most experienced. “I have seen so many deaths and tragedies, my wife tells me I have become harder than a policeman, but I don’t agree,” he says. “I care deeply for my family.”
And so, this soft-spoken man, like his colleagues, risks his life every day for the public although, he says, “None of us rarely get any gratitude in return.”
(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)