A “girly girl” is how Danielle Vicaldo, 25, describes her personality.
It is a self-image nurtured in childhood. As a kid, she loved Polly Pocket and Barbie. Her mother would dress her up and bring her along to soirees thrown by socio-civic organizations her mom held membership in. From preschool through high school, Danielle would go to a private all-female school run by Catholic nuns.
So it came as a surprise to her mom to see Vicaldo cut her hair recently into a boy’s bob, in preparation for a job that most people would hesitate to call girly.
“Sinabi ng mom ko, ‘Napaka-dangerous [ng trabahong iyan]. Sigurado ka ba?’” said Vicaldo. Her mother was also worried that Vicaldo was not putting to good use her nursing degree. To lure her out of the un-girly job, Mom offered her the family car.
But Vicaldo stood by her decision. Last February, she joined the 101-strong Valenzuela City Fire Station and is now one of its 25 female firefighters.
‘That challenged me’
Though the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) has long opened its doors to women, female firefighters remain a minority, comprising 3,902 of the around 20,000 firefighters in the country today, or about one in every five.
Vicaldo and some of her colleagues believe that the low female turnout in the fire department is largely due to the persisting gender stereotypes, outdated ideas about what men and women can and can’t do.
FO3 Jhenalyn Timuat, 29, another firefighter in Valenzuela, said she was compelled to enter the fire department by having to prove wrong the notion that firefighting is no woman’s land.
“‘Yung bumbero, akala [ng maraming tao], panlalaki lang. Na-challenge ako na [kaya kong] gawin iyong ginagawa ng mga lalaki (Many people think firefighting is solely a man’s job. That notion challenged me),” said Timuat, who was a nurse in a private clinic until she became a firefighter five years ago.
An aspiring firefighter in the Philippines has to undergo rigorous pre-employment training, two sets at that. The first one, held either at the BFP national headquarters or at a regional office, lasts for two months.
The two months become six in the second training, a stay-in at the National Fire Training Institute in Calamba, Laguna. It covers basic firefighting, rescue, medical first response, rappelling, driving, among other lessons. A typical day begins at 4:00 a.m., to end as late as 7:00 p.m.
As in any training for a uniformed service, strict discipline is imposed. Leaving the premises of the institute is prohibited during the first two months. Cellphones are banned at the classrooms and barracks.
For FO4 Rita Morales, 44, surviving the grueling training is the first proof that women really can hold their own in the arena of firefighting: “Kaya din naman ‘yan. Bakit nakapag-rapell kami? Bakit, sa training, napasok namin ‘yong building na may apoy; sa loob ng building na iyon, kami lang ang mag-isa (What male firefighters can do, we can do them, too. We females rappelled down a wall at the training, didn’t we? We went inside a burning building, and we were just by ourselves).
‘This is it’
Before joining the fire department, Morales was a domestic helper at the Danish Embassy in Japan from 1992 to 1996. Coming home in 1997, Morales, who had been a midwifery major in college, applied at the BFP and finally entered the Valenzuela Fire Station in 1998. She is the longest-serving female firefighter in the station today.
Recalling her first ‘respondes,’ Morales said: “Kapag sumampa ka sa truck, iba ‘yong feeling mo. May thrill, lalo na kapag nandoon ka na fire scene, iba. Iba ang sigla ng dugo. Parang, this is it (Once you get on the fire truck, it feels different. It’s thrilling, and more when you are at the fire scene. You feel high. You think, this is it).
The same excitement is also what attracted Vicaldo to the job. “Gusto ko ‘yong may pagka-risky. [I’m an] adventurous type of person. Ayoko ng routine job (I prefer a job where there is always some risks. I’m the adventurous type. I hate a routine job,” said Vicaldo, who was nurse at a private hospital prior to the BFP stint.
But being a firefighter is not all thrill-seeking. “Ang isang paa mo, nasa hukay (You always have one foot in the grave)” is how Morales describes the job.
“Lahat iyan, kahit saan ka magresponde, naroon na ang risk. Lahat iyan, kahit sabihin mo pang residential lang ‘yan. Kasi hindi mo alam, babagsakan ka ng yero, meron palang biglang sasabog doon (Risk is always present in any fire, be it a house or anything. The roof may fall down on you, or something may explode),” Morales said.
Away from home, but not alone
Long hours at work also means missing out on family and social lives, the firefighters admit. Firefighters follow a “one-day on, one-day off” schedule where a shift lasts for 24 hours, followed by a 24-hour break.
“Wala kang magagawa. Ito ang sinumpaan mong tungkulin (You have no choice. This is your sworn duty),” said Morales.
But in spite of it, no one is planning of changing careers yet, thanks in no small part to their supportive families. For instance, when she is at work, Timuan leaves the care of her two babies, one year and five months, to her parents. Morales and Timuat are both married to firefighters.
Though they were at first worried, especially during her training, Morales’ parents have since then taken pride in their daughter’s job. “Ang parents ko, proud sa akin noong naging bumbero ako. Unang-unang reason nila, aba, iba itong anak ko, public servant ito. Makakatulong ka sa bayan mo (My parents have always been proud of me since I became a firefighter. They thought, our daughter’s someone different, she’s a public servant. She is serving her country).”
The upside of the long work hours is that it fosters a strong team spirit among the firefighters, a sort of a family away from home. “Much of what a firefighter do is with a team. So when you lack teamwork, everything will fall apart,” said Vicaldo.
Out of the comfort zone
At the fire station, the firefighters come from varied backgrounds. There are former nurses and midwives, teachers and engineers – a setting which Vicaldo thinks is akin to travelling and knowing different cultures, which she loves doing.
“Kapag hindi ka nag-move out ng comfort zone, hindi mo makikita iyong magagandang bagay. Hindi ka makakakilala ng new set of friends (When you don’t go beyond your comfort zone, you don’t get to see the beautiful things. You don’t get to meet a new set of friends)”
Vicaldo said that her mom is now coming to terms that firefighting is her youngest child’s choice of career. It may not be the profession her parents wanted for her, that is, working abroad as nurse, but at least, in this one, she, who has always led what she calls a “sheltered” life, is “learning more about life” while helping other people.
But this doesn’t mean, though, that because she has cut her hair and speaks about getting out of one’s comfort zone, she is leaving behind the girly girl for good.
Recently, she has concocted her own formula for an eyelash grower. “Naghanap ako ng mga essential oils na nakakapagtubo ng buhok (I looked for essential oils that help hair grow),” she said. And it works. Now, she fills mascara bottles with the formula and sells them to friends.
Not bad for an idea that came to her after a mishap with false eyelashes that caused her natural ones to fall off. “Nand’yan pa rin naman ang arte ko, somehow (I still have my style).”