Women put the fire into firefighting

A plucky group of eight Emiratis were the first Arab women to take part in the UAE World Firefighter Challenge. The physically and mentally demanding contest gave them an insight into the tough job and could pave the way for females to consider it as a career.

Shamsa Khamis gets help with preparing for her first firefighter challenge from Emirati firefighter Hassan Al Babooshi. Delores Johnson / The National
Powered by automated translation

Some people are just born heroes.

As a child, Maitha Saeed Al Zaabi loved watching films with uniformed heroes saving lives. She would tell herself, “yes, I want to be that hero. I want to save lives, I want to be able to make a difference in someone’s life.”

Last week, the First Sergeant at Abu Dhabi police got to live out one of her dreams, as she pulled on a firefighter uniform and had a taster of life on the front line.

Wearing a firefighting uniform that weighed more than 16kg – the average weight of a young child – she ran up a four-storey building, hauled up a 20kg weight, hammered away at obstacles to force entry, hosed down a target and carried an 80kg life-size doll across a field to safety.

Ms Al Zaabi, 27, was one of eight Emirati women from Abu Dhabi police – all skilled in sharpshooting and martial arts such as Taekwondo – who volunteered to take part in the UAE World Firefighter Challenge 2014.

“It was extremely difficult. I have a new respect for the work of firefighters,” she said.

In the sandy, hot conditions, with every part of their bodies aching, and after only two weeks of training, the women competed with men who do the job for a living.

“The most important part is that we tried and we pushed ourselves,” said First Sgt Meera Khalifa Al Mansoori, 30. “We are proof that if you set yourself a goal, you can achieve it with hard work and determination.”

Specialists and trainers in drill operations and weapons, First Sgt Al Zaabi and First Sgt Al Mansoori said they were now ready to become the country’s first female firefighters, after having a taste for what life in one of the world’s toughest professions is like.

“Yes, it is dangerous – but you save lives. There is nothing more honourable than that,” said First Sgt Al Mansoori.

Too humble to take credit, these Emirati women did more than just challenge themselves – they started a legacy.

“They made history as the first Arab, Khaleeji (from the Arabian Gulf) women to ever compete in a tough international challenge like this with professional firefighters from around the world,” said Lieutenant Colonel Hamad Al Riyami, director of the Abu Dhabi Civil Defence Stations Department.

“I am so proud of these ladies,” he said. “They were already heroes before they competed, and now they are even bigger heroes and they have made their country proud.”

The UAE World Firefighter Challenge 2014, held at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre last week as part of the International Exhibition for Security and National Resiliance, was launched in 2009 and attracts hundreds of competitors each year.

There are six different tasks: stair climb with a high-rise pack, hose hoist, forcible entry, hose advance and victim rescue. It is not for the faint hearted.

Since the induction of the first 24 female officers into Abu Dhabi police on April 22, 1978, the number of women on the force has grown to 3,000. There are no training programmes for women who want to become firefighters but this could change in the not so distant future.

“There are no limits and the UAE always supports and empowers its citizens and in particular is supportive of the women,” said Lt Col Al Riyami. “Anything an Emirati woman puts her mind to, she will achieve.”

Besides breaking records, these group of women are determined to break stereotypes about women in uniform.

“People, especially men, think that only a ‘kheshna’ [rough] woman would join this field, when we are actually more girlie than most of our friends,” said First Sgt Al Zaabi who, when not in uniform, was carrying a pink ribbon purse and retouching her make-up.

She joined the police in 2006 and has become good friends with her colleague, First Sgt Al Mansoori, who joined in 2008

“There is a sisterhood you find here that you don’t find much in other lines of work,” said First Sgt Al Mansoori.

Their other friends from the force, Sgt Hasna Juma Al Shamsi, 26, and Cpl Merfa Anbar Al Mazroui, 23, who also competed, agreed that they had found a “new family” when they joined the police force.

“I feel very lucky to be part of the team. We are always there for each other,” said Sgt Al Shamsi. “Our families may have hesitated at first when we said we wanted to be police officers, but then they saw the confidence and the change in us and now are very proud of us.”

Cpl Al Mazrouie said: “Actually, now the families rely on us to get difficult jobs done. We have become like superwomen in our own homes.”

When the women are out of uniform they dress in immaculate abayas and shaylas, wear heels and look like typical Emirati women. Graceful and gentle, they go about their work and all enjoy the order and decorum that comes with being an officer. But dare to slight these ladies, and you will see what they are made of.

“There was this rude man who was being fresh,” says Cpl Al Mazrouie, who is petite. “I was so tempted to just punch him and throw him to the ground.

“That would have taught him a life lesson. But we are patient and we don’t abuse our power.”

Cpl Al Mazrouie, along with Cpl Shamsa Khamis, 22, were two of the youngest competitors in the firefighting competition.

To warm up, Cpl Khamis did lunges and “butterfly” stretches, where she stretched out her arms and lifted them up and down like wings, all the time smiling as she said: “I can do this! I am tough and I am a champ.”

The other female competitors were Sgt Abeer Rashid Sind, Cpl Hiyam Juma Al Yamahi and Cpl Ruqiya Ali Al Balooshi, who also happens to be a ju-jitsu champion.

On the topic of marriage and what other people think of them, the group did not seem too concerned, and said that the women in their communities were more judgemental than the men.

“Some men get intrigued when we say we are policewomen,” said Sgt Al Mansoori. “Others get confused or don’t understand it. But since we are real women, we need real men in our lives who accept our strength and our femininity at the same time.”

“We know how to keep a home safe” said Sgt Al Zaabi. “If I see a burglar or someone up to no good in a neighbourhood, I will take him on and chase him. I am not afraid.”

As for the competition, they received advice and training from their coach, Mohammed Ali Halboup, and Ibrahim Al Meghaizwi, 27, an Emirati who has been a fireman for 10 years.

“They started from zero. They have come a long way,” said Mr Al Meghaizwi, who has been taking part in international competitions competed since 2009 and competed in the men’s competition. “I do this for a living and these kinds of competition are very difficult. But we need to do them to challenge ourselves and become better each time.

“I would keep telling the ladies to use their legs, not their back when pulling the dummy. A fireman’s strength is in his legs and arms, and back to a lesser degree.

“But ultimately, it is a state of mind. You have to remain focused on the target, and not get distracted by the fire and danger around you. If you hesitate, you risk your life and others.”

While traditionally a male dominated profession, civil defence and fire fighting may soon welcome its first batch of Emirati women.

“We are ready to be trained

and become firewomen,” said Sgt Al Zaabi and Sgt Al Mansoori


“I want to be that hero,” adds Sgt Al Zaabi with a smile.