First year firefighter rises to the top

Amiena Pillay received the award for Best Seasonal Firefighter from the City of Cape Town

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Photo of an award ceremony
Seasonal firefighters Amiena Pillay (right) and Firdous Seat (left) received their recognition awards on 20 April at the Cape Town Civic Centre. Photo: Eryn Scannell

During this year’s fire season, seasonal firefighter Amiena Pillay — working her first season — was called to respond to a veld fire outside Valkenberg Hospital. But the person who operates the fire engine pump was on the other side of the building and water was needed immediately. She knew she had to step up. Fortunately, she had previously asked the operator to explain how the pump worked. So she managed to work it herself.

Pillay was 17 when she went to the Roeland Street fire station in Cape Town for job shadowing. The first time she held a fire hose and felt the water rushing, was the moment she realised she wanted to become a firefighter. Pillay is now 20 and has spent one season as a firefighter for the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Service.

Seasonal firefighters fight veld fires during the six-month fire season from 1 November to 30 April. They complement full-time staff, for whom there is limited funding.

The Cape Town Roeland Street unit have six days on and two days off. Pillay’s shift worked on Christmas. She said in the first week of March “we had a fire call every day, the whole week”.

“Being in the fire service is very unpredictable,” Pillay said. “We can’t make plans. When a situation happens you need to be there and be ready.”

Seasonal firefighters wear heavy personal protective equipment (PPE) while they work. It gets hot and sweaty. They undergo tough physical training wearing their gear every morning, but the work is still very challenging, says Pillay.

“I love challenges,” she said. “It makes me stronger. People see females as not as tough and strong as the guys are. I want to show the guys that I am just as strong as them.”

Smoke is an occupational hazard. “We just have to endure it because it’s uncontrollable, because we need to get the fire out,” says Pillay. “Smoke comes through your nose; it burns your eyes and makes your eyes tear.”

On 20 April, Pillay’s firefighting skills were recognised at the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Service certification ceremony. She received the award for Best Seasonal Firefighter after only one season from her colleague Faiek Khan, who had just completed his fourth season.

“It’s a major thing for me because it’s my first career – firefighting,” Pillay said after the ceremony.

Khan had received the Best Seasonal Firefighter award the previous three years, but this year he declined the award. “Good firefighters are not made, they are born,” Khan said. “Their skills are just defined at training. It would have been wrong of me to take [this award] away from her. I take my hat off to her.”

Khan said Pillay was hardworking, trustworthy, and one of the best teammates he has ever worked with.

“She might be small in stature but she has the heart of a lion,” Khan said.

Pillay has applied to become a full-time firefighter. She hopes to be a station commander or district commander one day, few of whom are female.

“I hope to work alongside her,” said Khan.

TOPICS:  Fire Gender Labour

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