It was curiosity that enticed Sayani Saidon to find out more about the job of a firefighter and the more she found out, the greater her desire to be part of a rescue team. Sayani pursued her dream of becoming a firefighter and went on to excel in her career. She is now leading her own team of fire and rescue personnel and was appointed as Kedah state Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba) director on March 8 this year — the first woman to hold such a position in Malaysia.
“When I was a little girl, whenever I passed by the fire station near my home, I wondered what’s in the fire engine and what firefighters did. The more I got to know, the more I felt I wanted to be one!” says the senior assistant fire commissioner who hails from Perak.
The 48-year-old Sayani was the deputy director of the Perak state Bomba before her appointment as the Kedah state Bomba director overseeing its 19 stations with 756 personnel.
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Besides managing the state department’s operations, she is also tasked with expanding the number of Bomba stations and manpower in the state. Her first project was to set up one Bomba station in Pulau Langkawi by this year.
While many may assume a lady helming Bomba operations in the state would be a stern and assertive person, Sayani turns out to be soft-spoken, friendly and confident.
Her current task now is more focused on management and strategy planning, and although this has spared her from on-the-ground rescue missions, Sayani says she prefers to “turun padang” whenever she has the time. This also gives her the chance to get to know her individual team members better.
“We are a close-knit team and during informal occasions, some will call me Mama or Ibu,” Sayani tells EdgeProp.my.
Sayani is a mother of three children — two daughters and a son. In her climb up the career ladder, she notes that her family’s support has been crucial in helping her reach where she is today.
Her spouse and her other family members’ understanding, mental and emotional support have given her strength to pursue her career while raising her own family.
“The first five years after having my children were the toughest days I have ever experienced. I did not have time for myself and I had to juggle between work and family, but those days are over. My children understand my work and my two daughters have even participated in the cadet bomba programme,” says the proud mother.
Her own struggle to maintain work-life balance has made her more sensitive to the needs of her subordinates today, she adds.
Creating the perfect team
It is definitely no easy feat being a leader in a field dominated by men, says Sayani, but every woman should pursue her ambition — to be who and what she wants to be and not what others say or think she should be.
“I understand that not everyone is given an opportunity to do that, so I am thankful that the organisation I work for and my bosses gave me the opportunity to prove my capabilities.
“There will be some doubt and resistance to a woman’s leadership but I have to prove that I have the skills to lead,” she says at Bomba’s headquarters in Putrajaya.
“It is not easy for women to be firefighters but I am not here to compete with men, I am here to pursue my passion and to help the team complete their rescue missions,” she stresses.
As leaders and firefighters, women she adds, are empathetic, observant, passionate about their jobs and good listeners.
“Physically we [women] can’t compete with the men but women are mentally strong and when our soft ‘powers’ are combined with men’s strengths, we create the perfect team for rescue missions,” says the firefighter who has been with Bomba since 1997.
“A true leader must possess the necessary skillset, experience and knowledge. He/she must also be a good listener. Regardless of one’s gender, a leader needs to prove that he/she is meant for the position, and not just by chance,” offers Sayani.
According to her, Bomba has 15,000 personnel but only 5% to 6% are women spread over different departments.
Saving more lives through education
Being in the Bomba team for close to 22 years, Sayani says she has never been bored with her job. “There is no greater satisfaction than saving lives. The smiles of relief on the victims’ faces after being rescued or seeing their loved ones safe, fuel my passion and keep me going,” says Sayani.
Times when victims failed to be rescued also drive her to save even more lives.
She recalls a fire incident where a couple who had just moved into their new house was burnt to death on their first night as they did not put out the candles for the moving home ceremony.
Such cases could be avoided if people have fire safety knowledge and if their homes are equipped with fire-fighting extinguishers or smoke detectors.
Hence, as the state director, Sayani plans to carry out more fire safety education to prevent lives lost through fires.