Standing head and shoulders above participants at the recent 1998 Education and Careers Expo, a dummy fireman in a booth attracts a couple of students. While one feels the fabric of his black protective suit, another paws his silver gloves and wonders aloud how much the outfit weighs. But Tong Mun-chun ignores the mannequin and heads straight for the information boards, pen and paper in hand. Echoing the words of the Fire Services Department's promotional bumph, the 19-year-old grocery-store assistant says becoming a firefighter would relieve him of his dead-end job and give him the chance of a challenging career. 'Whenever I see a fire on TV, I wish I could be there,' he says shyly, jotting down the entry requirements for firefighters. Chubby, and wearing a scruffy ponytail, blue shorts and cap, he hardly seems the type the department would accept. But the firefighters on hand to field questions do not discourage him - even though he is clearly too short to meet the 168-centimetre minimum height stipulation for men and women. While the firefighters readily share their knowledge of the job, what they likely keep to themselves are tales that might scare off prospective candidates - even though few need to be told the profession is dangerous and physically demanding. Helping with recruitment this year, acting senior fireman Chu Hak-kin at first seems reluctant to talk about his most terrifying moment on the job. But then he quietly recounts an incident 11 years ago, just after he had completed a course at the department's Pat Heung training school in Yuen Long. 'I was with colleagues fighting a fire at a cotton mill in Castle Peak Road,' he says. 'It was scary because I was running out of oxygen and I had difficulty locating the firehose that would have led me out of the building quickly. I had to grope around for a while before I found it.' Anyone daring enough to withstand confinement in a pitch-black, smoky room can join firefighting courses at Pat Heung, which caters for both recruits and civilians. Here, in the middle of a concrete expanse, stands an ominous steel cabin that last year claimed the life of 34-year-old rookie fireman Alan Ng Wai-kwong. Built to resemble a container ship's hold, the 10-by-20-metre structure contains a chamber with firewood that is set alight, raising the temperature inside to as high as 65 degrees Celsius. 'Trainees will put on their breathing apparatus and come down through these steps,' says Pat Heung commandant Cheung Kwok-kwan, pointing to a blackened staircase leading from the top of the hold to the heart of the fire. Battling the smoke and in total darkness, they have about 30 minutes to make their way through the hold, guided by a thin rope strung around the structure's perimeter. 'They will be tasked with finding some kind of object, like a bucket, just to simulate a real situation where they might be required to locate a body,' Mr Cheung says, adding that in real situations the first team on the scene will lay a line through a burning building that other squads will use to enter and leave by. Though more than 10,000 civilians and 7,000 recruits have completed the exercise at Pat Heung, he acknowledges that not everyone can cope with the smoke and searing heat. 'Some policewomen [police also use the facility for fire training] I've come across yell and cry inside,' he says. No doubt the death of Mr Ng still preys on the minds of some trainees. During the tragic exercise last year, the safety line connecting Mr Ng to a fellow trainee became entangled and snapped. While other recruits panicked and rushed out of the hold, he was left behind and later died of multiple organ failure induced by heatstroke. Though aware of the accident, Pat Heung's only trainee firewoman at present, Theresa Lam Chun-sai, had no trouble completing the exercise. Nor did she have any difficulty passing the ladder drill, which tests recruits' fear of heights. In this drill, trainees are propelled skywards by a 50-metre fire-engine ladder and twirled around. Once back on ground, they are asked to describe the surroundings. 'If they're scared they'll close their eyes,' says Mr Cheung. Ms Lam is training to be a station officer, which entails taking charge of a fire station, providing training for firefighters, leading them in emergencies and performing administrative duties. Entry requirements and duties for station officers and firefighters are different, as are their career opportunities. Station officers can reach the rank of director, while firefighters' highest level is normally that of principal fireman. Firemen and women are expected primarily to carry out firefighting and rescue operations and to maintain equipment. Personnel must also tackle special assignments. For instance, every day until the end of April, senior and principal firefighters will be inspecting all 60,000 commercial, residential and industrial high-rise buildings in Hong Kong. Assuming Ms Lam passes the 26-week mandatory course, she will be only Hong Kong's fifth woman to become a station officer (a job the department has difficulty filling because of the stringent requirements, among them the ability to speak Cantonese and English). The four other female station officers entered the department in 1993 and 1994, shortly after the job was opened to women. And, since the job of firewoman was created in July 1994, no one has been successful. While the number of females in 'operations' is tiny, there are many more in the department's communications centre, according to Wong Shiu-kwong, assistant divisional officer at Pat Heung. Having trained women station officers, he says that, in the end, 'it makes no difference - men and women are the same.' Explaining why the department took so long to accept women firefighters, he says, 'Perhaps it was just traditional thinking - that it was a job for men.' With the prerequisite physique and standing 1.7 metres tall, Ms Lam looks capable of tackling any exercise. But, like all the other women who have passed through Pat Heung, she struggles to keep up with the men in physical-strength tests. Still, she says, 'it's getting easier because I've built up my energy and power.' Indeed, she can now do six chin-ups, six more than when she first started the course four months ago. And press-ups are a breeze, even though she had not even done one before entering Pat Heung. She is also expected to be able to carry someone her weight - 52 kilograms - while wearing a firefighter's suit that, including breathing apparatus, can be as heavy as 20 kilos. Her determination to keep up with her male counterparts has seen her progress from a 4D rank to 2B - the best of any female trainee to date. (The number denotes strength while the latter indicates running performance). While she admits the training has reduced her to tears, Ms Lam says the pressure is self-imposed rather than coming from her seniors. In fact, she may be the department's best walking advertisement. Since she joined, many of her male friends have considered following in her footsteps. Confident she will pass the course, Ms Lam says she worries about how she will perform in an actual fire station, where her management skills will be tested. A marketing graduate from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, she admits that managing men may be difficult. 'I don't know how they'll feel if they're under a woman's control,' she says. For now, Ms Lam seems so preoccupied with building up her strength that any mention of the risk factor associated with the job is dismissed. Death does not worry her because everyone has to die sometime, she says, admitting in the same breath that she has never been in a situation where her life has been threatened. Her composure is not shattered even when she is confronted by those who will make her job difficult: people whose irresponsible actions cost the lives of others. Once, when she saw a hiker in a country park thoughtlessly flicking away a cigarette butt, all she asked was that he not to do it again. As she begins tackling fires professionally, her attitude may change. Firefighters and the general public know all too well that many fires are the result of poor building maintenance and management. Too many people are still using escape routes in buildings as personal storage areas, locking fire escapes, wedging open smoke doors or otherwise altering fire-resistant structures. Even as critics clamour for a way to imprison or severely fine those who threaten the safety of others, the SAR continues to witness horrifying blazes. Last year, 17 people were killed in the Top One blaze (the karaoke bar, which was found to have breached fire-safety regulations, was firebombed) and nine lost their lives in the Mei Foo Sun Chuen fire. Only a year before, 40 perished in the Garley Building blaze. While the number of major fires has fallen - from 39 in 1996 to 26 last year - fire calls jumped 8.2 per cent, to 35,543, in 1997. The main cause of these fires? According to the Fire Services Department, 4,411 cases involved the 'careless handling or disposal of cigarette ends, joss sticks, and children playing with matches and candles'. Firefighting veteran Aaron Cheung Yin-chiu, 48, sighs when discussing Hong Kongers' level of fire awareness. 'I think once there's a big fire, everyone concentrates on fire-safety measures. But after a few months, people just forget about them,' he says. He points to the fact that only 20 people participated in a fire drill at Mei Foo Sun Chuen last November (seven months after the fire) compared with the turnout of more than 200 in an exercise last March near the site of the Garley Building. Divisional commander at the Fire Services complex in Canton Road, Mr Cheung was one of 600 firefighters who fought the Garley fire. Liu Chi-hung was among the victims in the blaze, believed to have been started by welders' sparks. 'My colleague [Mr Liu] was working with some other firemen,' Mr Cheung remembers. 'They knew he was in trouble because they heard him shouting, but because the visibility was so low, they didn't know where he was . . . Eventually, we discovered he'd fallen into a lift shaft from the fourth floor to the ground floor.' Mr Cheung, who was hospitalised for two days because of cornea injury caused by the heat and smoke, adds: 'In the worst situation, you put your fingers in front of your eyes and you can't count them.' He was among the many personnel given psychological counselling after the incident and, at the time, commented: 'Some things cannot be helped by other people.' Two days after leaving hospital, he was back at his desk. Most other firefighters had already returned to work by then, sticking to their routine shifts of 24 hours on, 48 hours off. According to Mr Cheung, no one quit the department after the disaster for one simple reason. 'Firemen love their jobs,' he says, 'even though we know it's quite risky because of the many unknowns.' Apart from citing the satisfaction of saving lives, firefighters also say the work is attractive because of the salary and perks. Starting salaries for firefighters and station officers are $12,575 and $23,260 respectively. But the relatively high pay comes with a price: they work longer hours than members of any other disciplinary force. Compared with the 60 hours-a-week they worked in the 1980s, firefighters now put in 54-hour weeks. But they want this reduced further to 48 hours. 'During the pay review, it was said that Fire Services personnel should work longer because they have some inactive hours [time to eat and rest],' says Mr Cheung. 'But I don't think this is fair.' The long hours, shift work and danger, however, do not seem to bother Josephine Chan Mei-wan, another job-hunter at the Careers Expo thinking of joining the Fire Services Department. 'It's a dangerous job, but satisfying because you can save people,' the former Express News reporter says. Pat Heung trainee Ms Lam would probably find just as much satisfaction persuading people to be responsible. 'Life is full of danger,' she says, 'but sometimes Hong Kong people just act as if they don't know that.'