Most Malaysians are surprised to find out that we have women firefighters.
"Maybe they don't realise how many of us there are," said firefighter Hernazila Ali, who is one of the 520 women in the Fire and Rescue department.
It's not the most popular career path for women, but Hernazila was determined to be a firefighter even though her mother asked her to rethink her decision. "My siblings would also ask me if there was no other job for me, one that is more suitable for women. I told them that women can do any job," said Hernazila, 26, who joined the Fire and Rescue department in 2013.
Despite her family's initial apprehension, Hernazila said that they are now proud of her.
"If we are out on operations and people judge us, we don't care. We just carry on with our job to the best of our abilities," said 26-year-old firefighter Nurfathihah Kamarudin.
Whatever the public perception, men and women firefighters are equal in the eyes of the Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department. Men and women are equal, with 520 women contributing to the force nationwide.
"Before, a career as a firefighter was synonymous with men, now women are no longer left behind and many have shown keen interest to join the number one rescue agency in the country," said Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department director-general Datuk Wira Wan Mohd Nor Ibrahim."The participation of women in the department has been a positive development and something to be proud of. It is now possible to see women firefighters who can lift heavy 20kg fire hoses, and are agile in their movements," said Wan Mohd Nor.
Male and female firefighters have to undergo the same physical training and must have the same fitness level.
"They need to move quickly through narrow gaps, amid fires and thick smoke, so that they can put out the flames," said Wan Mohd Nor, adding that all firefighters need to be prepared for emergency situations.
Nurfathihah said that the six-month long training process was the hardest part of her career.
During the application process, female firefighters have to be able to lift 46kg of weights, climb ropes and go up tall buildings.
"We do whatever the men have to do. During training they really push us, because all our equipment are really heavy.
"So they really push us to the limit so that we are strong both physically and mentally," said Nurfathihah.
Although men are physically stronger than women, Hernazila says that she doesn't see women as being "below" men.
"There are other areas where we can help out more. The men usually help carry the heavier things, while we help with things like installing the hose suction.
"There is good teamwork with the men on my squad," she said.
Hernazila said firefighters are always busy. When they are not out on the field, they do training exercises and tests, as well as check and maintain their equipment.
Their duties are to put out fires, release trapped accident victims and retrieve bodies.
"Helping accident victims with serious injuries is tougher because it's heartbreaking to see their broken bones, cuts and injuries," she said.
Firefighters also have their share of unusual cases.
"Even when a ball gets stuck, they call Bomba," said Hernazila, adding that she has handled cases concerning snakes and cats. She once got a call about a snake which turned out to be a shoelace. The caller couldn't see clearly as he had not turned on the lights.
Another firefighter Nor Izni Zahid, 22, said being a firefighter has forced her to overcome her fear of the dark.
"We may need to enter into situations that are dark in certain operations. So, the Fire Department trains us to feel that fear and overcome it," said Izni, who dropped out of college to join the Fire and Rescue Department, spurred by her interest in big machines.
"Before I had a more 'girly' nature, but after I entered Bomba and we do the same activities and training as the men, I feel that women can do whatever men can," said Nor Izni.
Aiza Izati Khairuddin, 23, said that the hardest part of her training was not being able to share feelings and struggles with anyone because she was the only woman in her training batch.
"Now that I finished my training and started work, I found some female friends," she said, adding that her colleagues are "like family".
Aiza said that more women should consider joining the Fire and Rescue Department because they are able to contribute to society and help those who are in need.
Hernazila said she is proud of every fire she has put out, every home she has saved and every person and animal she has rescued. "When we succeed in a case, we are happy. We have done our job," she said.