Reigniting the firefighting industry with the women of Pandacan Fire Station

As one of the first all-female firefighting teams in Metro Manila, the women of Pandacan share their experiences in a male-dominated industry.

As the world walks toward a more diverse and equal society, developments and changes have gone underway to promote the emerging presence of women in male-dominated careers. As a prime example, Ssupt. Christine Doctor-Cula was inaugurated as the first woman District Fire Marshal of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP). Additionally, BFP Chief Louie Puracan revealed that at least 27 percent of firefighters in the country are women during a congressional hearing on setting hiring quotas for female firefighters. He states, “we support the intent of House Bill 5740 to promote equality and opportunities among men and women…however, we disagree with the setting of a minimum quota of 20 percent for annual female recruitment and allowing said quota beyond the set number should there be more qualified woman applicants in the BFP.”

Further proving that the BFP has been part of the global shift to rectifying the gender inequalities in their system, the very first all-female fire station in Manila was established last June 2022, showcasing that women have no trouble traversing  through society’s expectations of who don fire suits.

Turning up the heat

15 female officers from all over the metro were reassigned to Pandacan station to create the all-female team of Pandacan Fire Station. Their district fire marshall at the time wanted to “prove that anything men do in fire operations, women can do, too,” Senior Fire Officer 4 Station Chief Annabelle Padilla explains in Filipino. 

With regard to their operations, Senior Fire Officer 3 Annabelle Atienza affirms that their all-female station does not operate any differently from the rest. “Meron kaming mga kanya-kanyang obligasyon sa istasyon. Meron kaming mga designation na ginagampanan,” Atienza states matter-of-factly. From doing paperwork to being the assigned fire truck driver, every officer has a role in ensuring smooth working conditions.

(We each have our own obligations at the station. We have designations that we have to fulfill.)

To maintain their conducive work environment, Padilla shares that she puts her title as commander aside to keep the trustful and open environment she cultivated with her team. “Ako nasusunod [bilang commander], pero bago ako mag-decide para sakin, kinokonsulta ko rin sila…para anytime, hindi sila nahihiya mag open sakin. Any time ‘di rin ako nahihiya magsabi sa kanila. Para ‘yung trabaho namin maging smooth.”

(Though I am commander, I still ask my constituents for their input before I decide on my own…so that they won’t shy from opening up to me and vice versa. So that our workflow runs smoothly.)

Extremely proud of their station, Fire Officer 3 Hermielyn Arañez emphasizes that even their truck driver is a woman. But aside from being an all-female team, Atienza highlights that their uniqueness lies in their drive and dedication to their jobs in such a male-dominated field. “Our will to respond because we are women [sets us further apart]. We aren’t just women. We are women,” she emphasizes firmly in Filipino.

Playing with fire

Being an all-female team, however, is also a weight to bear on their shoulders by itself. Pressure is especially palpable on duty according to Padilla, who mentions that they feel the need to prove that the installation of their team was no mistake. But these anxieties are somewhat alleviated by uplifting oneself and each other. For Atienza, recognizing every individual’s strengths and weaknesses is key to good performance. “Meron akong isang talent na wala siya, [at] meron naman siyang talent na wala ako,” she adds. 

(I have a talent that someone else may not possess; in turn, they have a talent that I do not possess.)

Valuing their respective assets is how they maintain teamwork, an ethos that powers them through the unfamiliar. “Paglapag namin dito [sa Pandacan], para siyang blank canvas. So inaral namin [‘yung lugar],” Atienza recalls the beginning of their reassignment.

(Pandacan was like a blank canvas to us when we first arrived, so we learned our way around the area.)

Another noteworthy on-the-job occurrence for these women is getting accustomed to fire victims who initially appear hesitant to the help they extend. While Padilla affirms that they have yet to experience explicit gender discrimination, she insists that what goes unsaid conveys enough. “May nakita na kaming reaction na nasa mukha lang, na,oh? Mga babae kayo? Kaya niyo ba?’

(We’ve already encountered subtle, nonverbal reactions that clearly meant to say, “oh? You’re all women? Can you do the job?”)

As exasperating as these apprehensions are, her team works tirelessly to dispel them. “Kaya siguro ang BFP nakaisip na mag-incorporate ng babaeng istasyon para i-showcase yung mga kakayahan ng mga babae,” Padilla gathers.

(Maybe that’s why BFP thought of incorporating an all-female station, to showcase our capabilities as women.)

Blazing a trail

Pandacan Fire Station is proof that women empowerment can be cultivated both on the job and within one another. However, Arañez, Atienza, and Padilla also wish the same to be true beyond the confines of their workplace. Being the first all-female fire station is not the end goal; it is a mere stepping stone toward achieving gender diversity in the firefighting profession. 

The road ahead is still a bumpy one. Things like the occasional iffy looks from fire victims to still being handed men-sized personal protective equipment  are small yet glaring signs of existing disparity and, worst of all, signs that tell young and aspiring firefighters that the industry does not welcome them. 

Padilla is more than happy to be a role model to those who have none, using herself to exemplify a successful female firefighter despite these patriarchal hurdles. “[Gusto kong] ipakita sa kanila yung sarili ko, na ganito ako, [at] kaya kong gawin,” she remarks and encourages her peers to do the same.

(I want to show young women who I am, what I do, and that I can do it well.) 

In Atienza’s case, all it took were words of encouragement from one person to devote more than two decades of her life to this public service. “Na-encourage ako ng tatay ko na siguro, pwede [ako] dito. Nagustuhan ko siya tsaka minahal ko na rin siya.”

(I was encouraged by my father, who supposed that I could do this for a living. I found myself liking it, and grew to love it along the way.)

Kung ano yung kaya nung lalaki, kaya ng babae,” muses Padilla, who intends to keep writing history by passing the torch to the next generation. Firefighting has never been a “man’s job”, but for as long as the rest of the world holds onto such a myth, there is no greater feeling than proving them wrong. 

(What a man can do, a woman can do.)

Red Binay

By Red Binay

Marypaul Jostol

By Marypaul Jostol

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