There is an implicit, and pervasive, perception that firefighting is a man’s job. This belief has traditionally kept women away from the fire force, but with gender norms being challenged in general, this is slowly changing in Sierra Leone.
Sergeant Memunatu Turay, first-class officer in the National Fire Force, believes that her gender has never interfered with her ability to do her job, which includes not only putting out fires, but also attending to rescue calls, being at the forefront of disaster operations, and promoting community awareness about fire safety. Training was a challenge, she says, but she kept going because she had other women firefighters to look up to, and now wants "other young girls to be inspired by the example I try to set every day".
Sierra Leone is highly prone to fire hazards, including wildfires exacerbated by climate change and disastrous outbreaks in overcrowded urban areas. The country needs more trained firefighters, and gender should be no bar, says Turay, to “make a difference” in the community.
In an in-depth conversation, Turay spoke to Tie u Orja about the different aspects of her role in the fire force, her experiences as a woman in what is still a male-dominated field, and why it’s important to break down gender barriers for the greater good of society.
When I was still in school, there was a fire at Portee, close to where we lived. It was at a store where they were selling palm oil. When the Fire Force arrived that day, I saw a woman on the fire engine. She looked so tall and brave, and she was so focused on operating the complicated machinery of the fire engine. I was in awe. I never expected a woman to be in the Fire Force, leave alone operate a fire engine. Even though I felt bad to see the store burn, I was inspired to see a woman in such a powerful position. Two days later, I saw her again when she came to investigate the cause of the fire. She is one of the reasons why I decided to become a firefighter, she is a great inspiration to me even today.
I grew up in the camps at Approved School after the war because our original place (in Kenema) was burned down. There, I grew close to a woman called Mami Yeanor, and she became like a second mother to me. She encouraged me to apply to the Fire Force and personally put in a good word for me with a friend who was a senior fire officer. She even escorted me when I went to apply.
But this time, in 2002, I did not get through the application process. I was not given any specific reason.
I felt disappointed, but decided to apply again. I got my chance in 2004 when I heard through a radio advert that applications for recruitment were open. I rushed to the Public Service Commission. The minimum educational requirement for an ordinary fire officer was a Basic Education Certificate (BECE) or the West African Senior School Certificate (WASSCE). For a cadet officer, which is a higher recruitment position, the requirement was a college degree. I had recently completed my WASSCE and so I knew that I met the minimum qualification. As I filled the black-and-white form, I had a feeling I’d be shortlisted this time.
After a few weeks of checking at the Fire Force Headquarters frequently, I finally saw the list on a Monday morning. My name was on it. I had qualified to go for the other steps in the recruitment evaluation process. I was excited to begin this new phase of my life!
One week later, we were called for a physical fitness evaluation in which we were told to run from the Headquarters up to a place at Tower Hill. There, we had to pluck a leaf from a particular tree — the only one of its kind in the area — and run back as quickly as possible. We were divided into groups of five. The last two were disqualified from each run group. Those of us who passed were eligible for the entrance examination, which was a basic test of mathematics, English, and general knowledge. I made it through the fitness test. After I passed the entrance, medical examination and criminal clearing process, my nine-month training began.
In the beginning, my body was not ready for all the stress it was taking. I really thought that I would give up and not be able to complete the course. I had never endured any kind of physical training before. During the first week, we had to report in the morning and jog from the Headquarters at AJ Momoh Street through Kissy Road and right up to Upgun, which is almost 5km away. The road is mostly coal tar and flat with a few hills to climb. Then, we had to jog back.
In the following weeks, we gradually moved to training for search and rescue. For this drill, we had to crawl through the entire length of a gutter within a particular timeframe. The ability to crawl on your belly during a fire, and to crawl through cramped spaces, is vital for the survival of fire officers and the people they are trying to save. When there’s a fire in a building, the smoke is very dangerous. It suffocates people and causes choking and unconsciousness even before the fire reaches them. However, there is usually less smoke and more visibility closer to the floor because the fire usually rises and so does the smoke with it. We are trained to crawl on our bellies to take advantage of this. In another training exercise, I had to balance someone on my back and climb the building of the Headquarters using a ladder. This was to simulate a rescue situation involving bringing down someone from a burning building.
There was also the ’Jummah Prayer’ drill. On a Friday, we were all told to put on the white overall gowns that Muslims usually wear for prayers, and go to the mosque at the Headquarters. When the instructor blew on the whistle, which could happen at any time, we had to run to a particular point. Those who couldn’t complete the drill on time had to roll on wetted ground in their white gowns!
Apart from the physical training, we attended lectures about the nature of fires, the functions and uses of fire equipment such as hoses and the BA (breathing apparatus) set. We had to take tests that evaluated how much of the lectures and training we remembered.
When I was training, there were other female recruits too and we built up a friendship. Sadly, some of them did not have the strength to go through the training and dropped out. At times, I was also tempted to give up. It was so hard one day that I refused to come for training. But one of the instructors, Mr Kofi, sent some colleagues to my house to collect me. I told my mother to tell them that I wasn’t at home but she encouraged me to go with them.
Our instructors were like parents. Sometimes they were hard and sometimes more flexible. When you’re a parent, you have to be both… because if you’re hard all the time, you might drive your child away. Mr Kofi would sometimes buy food for me to encourage me after training sessions. To this day, we are good friends at the office.
At the end of the training, some of us graduated as constables, like myself, while others who were college graduates became cadets or inspectors.
In some ways, my job is much like any job, but there is a lot of structure and discipline within the force.
Currently, I work in the Fire Prevention Department. There are two women in our team — myself and a colleague called Isatu, who is like a sister to me. Our department is in charge of sensitising people about fires and assessing risk. On a normal day, if I am not in the office, I am part of a team that goes on sensitisation visits to various homes and offices. When we arrive on a visit, we usually introduce ourselves and explain that we have come to talk about the things that need to be done to prevent a fire, and what to do if a fire occurs. Sometimes people are surprised to see a woman as a fire officer, but I like to think they welcome us more when a woman is part of the team.
I am also part of the fire investigation team. It is a job that needs a lot of attention to detail. You need to figure out how a fire started and grew based on how a place is burnt. We consider things like the electrical wiring, equipment, nature of the materials, the weather at the time, testimonies from witnesses. Based on all these factors, we create a report.
I work as a day-duty officer. I arrive at the station by 7.45am, around the time they ring the first bell. This is when we take over from the night duty officers.
During the transition, there is a handing- and taking-over protocol where the outgoing and incoming officers fall-in and ensure that all the equipment and inventories are in place. After that, a roll call is made. There is a small assembly where we pray and receive word from our commanding officers. By 8am, everyone goes to their various posts and our shifts start.
The bell is rung through the day in different situations, mostly by the watch-room officer. We always pay attention to what is said after the bell rings. If we hear “Fire!” then we know that it is a fire call. The ‘first pump’ will always be on standby and ready to move. This is the first team and fire engine truck that dispatches. Not long afterwards, the second pump follows. If the bell rings and we hear “Man on duty, fall-in!” it means that we need to gather to receive a message. There is a final bell call where the announcer says “Everybody, fall-in!” This means that everyone must gather at the basement where the trucks are parked.
Our work is not limited to fires but also to rescue and emergency services. The fire department can be relied on to assist citizens in the event of a fire, flood, hazardous material spill, or medical emergency. Ideally, I would enjoy being a member of a team that works to resolve disasters in the country.
Fires don’t occur every day, but when they do it gets hectic. A few years ago, I was part of a big fire that occurred at Shell in Freetown. I worked from the Kissy Fire Station back then.
That morning, I had been part of a team that had sensitised the people at the Jetty to not store fuel indoors. Apparently, they did not listen. Just when we were arriving back at the station from this trip, we received a running call from our discipline officer that the Jetty at Shell was on fire and we should return.
By the time we arrived, the whole place was on fire. There was so much smoke. There were bodies burnt beyond recognition. A colleague who was fighting the fire wasn’t well that day. The heat made him dizzy and he let go of the hose. Now, the water hose is so powerful that it can break human bones if not properly handled. However, as fire officers, we have the skills to handle the pressure of the hose — it’s part of the training — and so we could take over. Our Chief Fire Officer was there too and it was very uplifting to see him pumping the hose and encouraging us to fight by his side. He inspires us a lot because he doesn’t just sit in the office.
I was the only woman who was present during the fire at Jetty. Being there reminded me of the woman fire officer who had inspired me many years ago. She was the one who had reminded me that as women, we too can make a difference in society. I can still see her face. When I joined the force, I learnt that she had travelled out of the country. I want to meet her one day and tell her that she is a role model to me.
Of course, being a firefighter is one aspect of my life. I am also a mother. I am a daughter. Sometimes it is not easy to balance the responsibilities of home and work. Sometimes when I return from work, the children are already asleep. So, on weekends I try to spend a lot of time with the family so that they can feel my presence.
My duty is to protect life and property but I also have a responsibility to stay alive for my family. Our job is sometimes a dangerous one. We never know what we will encounter until we get to the location of a fire. Some fires are caused by gas explosions or leakages, and those are especially dangerous because the gas spreads fast. Some fires are caused by chemicals and we use foam to blanket the fire. I remember one time, a fire officer nearly got electrocuted to death when he was trapped by an electric cable. I was horrified… I imagined what would have happened to my family if I was the one on that fire engine. Maybe a man’s body can withstand all that electricity better than a woman’s body. Things like this scare me every day because you begin to think about whether a particular situation puts a woman in more danger than a man due to the difference in our physicality. Things like a fast reflex and quick response time you can learn from the training school, but the physical limits to what a woman’s body can take compared to a man are sometimes out of our control.
Still, I know that every time I go out and sensitise people or respond to a fire, I help save lives. Despite the fact that the job comes with its own tediousness, I feel a sense of purpose. Above all, God himself blesses us for the work that we do. I feel happy to be a part of the force for its own sake, but what I love most about the job is that there is no differentiation between male and female fire officers. I feel completely safe to wash and dress among my colleagues, many of who are men, and there is nothing inappropriate or uncomfortable about it because, in everyone’s eyes, we are simply colleagues who work together. I can’t imagine this level of comfort and security working anywhere else. I look forward to coming to work every day.
I also want my daughter and other young girls who see me to be inspired by the example that I try to set every day. I always tell my daughter that education and devotion are two important things to succeed in life. Young girls need to keep an open mind when considering career paths. They should not be limited by the norms of society. I cannot imagine getting this much satisfaction doing any other job. My philosophy is that with devotion you can become whatever you want. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man.
Photographs: Joshua Yarjah. Cover graphic: Sunil Krishnan. Copy editor: Asavari Singh