Brave, undaunting and burning with fire to climb the ladder of success is Meenakshi Vijayakumar, Deputy Director of the Tamil Nadu Fire Rescue Services Department. She has a number of laurels and awards under her belt and one of them is the prestigious Presidents Gallantry Award awarded to her in 2013.
Meenakshi was born in Thumbaipatti, Melur to P.K.Padmanathan, Former Joint Registrar of Cooperative Society and Dr. V.S. Krishnakumari, Former Director of Childrens Hospital, Egmore. As she hails from a family of bureaucrats, it was only natural that Meenakshi too took a shot at the competitive exams.
She is an alumnus of Ethiraj College, where she pursued both her Bachelor and her Masters degree in Literature. Meenakshi started off her career as a lecturer at the Chellamal College for Women in 1990. Later on, she went to St. Agnal Institute of Management, New Delhi to teach Communication Technique. Though she cleared the Group One Service Exam in 1998 she waited till 2003 to join the Fire Rescue Services as women were not included in the service earlier. She joined as a Divisional Fire Officer of North Chennai where she served for four and a half years and has risen to the post of Deputy Director, Tamil Nadu Fire Rescue Services Department.
She took part in the rescue operations when Tsunami struck Chennai in December 2004. She was a saviour to more than 100 people whom she rescued during the floods in Chennai in December 2015. She has the distinction of training more than 30 batches of Fire Officers from all over the country.
Being a field officer, there are no specific working hours. “It’s an abnormal routine” as she puts it and one has to be always on the go. When she does get that rare free moment to unwind, she either gets hold of a good book or gets to watch movies that convey a good message. Shahrukh Khan is her favourite actor and Vidya Balan her favourite actress. She likes the colour blue and her favourite dish is chicken. She has a passion for looking after animals and takes care of 3 dogs and cats.
She has been conferred a number of awards from Lions Club, Rotary Club, Exnora International, Radio Mirchi, Indian Express, Dinamalar, Madras University and Vels University. Meenakshi is also adept at Sports and is the recipient of a gold medal in shotput at the World 11th Firefighters Games at Korea. She also bagged the bronze medal in Badminton in the World Police and Fire Games held in Los Angeles in 2017 and has earned the honour of being the first woman officer to win a medal for India. Due to her dedicated service, she was honoured with the Tamil Nadu Government Chief Minister Anna Medal.
From March onwards since lockdowns were announced, Meenakshi and her entire team have been on their toes sanitizing sensitive areas like schools, colleges, hospitals, police stations and residential complexes of policemen and fire officers. They use QRV (Quick Response Vehicle) water tenders and water lorries with special pumps for this purpose. So far they have sanitized 9654 places.
She says that her department has attended to 933 fire rescue calls in March, 627 in April and 608 calls in May. She quotes an incident where there was a fire in a dumpyard in Karur and it took her men 6 days of hard work to put out the fire.
Besides fire rescue calls, they also handle other rescue calls and they received 771 rescue calls in March, 609 in April and 694 calls in May. Unlike many of us who have the luxury of working from home during this pandemic, Meenakshi says that her team literally works 24/7 with hardly any rest. They have rescued a number of children, old people and animals who fell into open wells. They rescued about 164 animals including 10 deer, 15 dogs, 16 cats and 26 goats. They have requested the Forest Department as well as the local residents to create fences around open wells to prevent people and animals from falling into them.
In a bid to create awareness about the pandemic, her department conducted drawing competitions for children on the topic “The war against Corona”. Many children took part and prizes were awarded for the best works of art by Director Dr. C. Sylendra Babu.
Meenakshi and her team have also been doing a lot of social work as well. They have been feeding the destitute people with food cooked at their own station. So far they have fed 42,140 people. They did not stop with this, they have provided food and water for stray dogs as well. Till date, they have fed 23,375 stray dogs and provided water for stray animals in water tubs at all their 95 stations. They have also distributed around 10,000 masks to the poor and needy.
Besides this, her department has made use of this lockdown period to plant trees and have so far planted 8453 trees. They got the Palm tree and Neem tree seedlings from the Forest Department and planted them in their own stations and also on the roadsides.
There are a total of 1358 officers working in 95 fire stations and they have all been provided with PPE. She says that she and all the staff have taken swab tests and are sparing no efforts to sanitize all their fire stations. She is proud of her officers who are doing a great job in these uncertain times but feels sad that there is no recognition for these frontline workers who undertake risky operations.
Meenakshi finds that many people are still very casual and they go around without wearing masks and without following norms of social distancing in spite of all the awareness programmes conducted by her department including road shows and shows on Television. She requests people to cooperate with the government and follow all the prescribed norms and to Stay Home Stay Safe until this pandemic lasts.
Juliana Sridhar is a lawyer and a columnist