Fire Alarm: Minority Report

File photo / Credit: Pixabay

Helsinki Rescue Department is making progress in its efforts to attract more firefighter students from diverse backgrounds.

Until recently, the capital city had no firemen with minority backgrounds, but that’s now slowly changing.

“We partly succeeded” Matti Waitinen, Principal of Helsinki Fire School tells News Now Finand.

“Last course we had two second generation migrants in Finland. And this course we started [in September] we have two students, one from Iranian background and one from the Far East. Somehow we partly succeeded, but his is not exactly the result we wanted. We wanted to have more” he says.

In the coming years, some 20% of Helsinki residents will have an immigrant background.

But the city’s fire department doesn’t mirror the community it serves.

The lack of diversity also extended to female firefighters, with only one previously employed in the whole city. That gender imbalance is now changing very slightly, with two new women firefighters on the payroll.

Language Requirements

Although there are no quotas for immigrant background firefighters, applicants to the training school receive extra points if they speak a language other than Finnish. But the candidates must be completely fluent in Finnish as well.

“The basic problem is we are only teaching in Finnish, and our operating language in Helsinki is Finnish” explains Matti Waitinen.

“So people with foreign background should talk very fluent Finnish. We don’t teach at all in English, or any other language, not even Swedish because while we are working in the rescue units and ambulances, our operating language is strictly Finnish” he says.

Firefighter Camilo Hernandez Pelaez during a training exercise / Credit: Camilo Hernandez Pelaez

Camilo’s Story

Based at Helsinki’s Erottaja fire station, Camilo Hernandez Pelaez was one of the first firemen with an immigrant background to graduate, and start working in Helsinki.

“I have a feeling that anyone who applies to be a police officer or a firefighter, they don’t think about the pay. It has to be at the bottom of the list of reasons to apply for the rescue school. It’s that feeling you have, that you have to do something for your society and make this a better place to be” he says.

“It’s been a topic in Sweden as well and in Germany. They all say the same thing, you have many percent immigrant background people living in your city or your country but that doesn’t reflect the police forces or fire department. But nobody can force you to apply” says Hernandez Pelaez.

The 28-year-old was born and raised in Finland, but his father is from Colombia. At high school in Tapiola, a career counselor told Camilo that maybe an academic path wasn’t the right thing for him, and he should consider becoming a professional soldier, policeman or firefighter.

“Lots of children they usually want to be a policeman or firefighter but when you grow up it just fades away. But a lot of people in our class and people I talked to, they kept that childhood dream to become a firefighter” he says.
Firefighter Nicholas O’Kane during a training exercise / Credit: Nicholas O’Kane

Nicholas’ Story

Born in Finland, but growing up in Calgary with a Canadian dad and Finnish mother, Nicholas O’Kane is also one of the new firemen with an immigrant background.

“I consider myself a lot more Finnish currently. I’ve always felt a bit more foreigner in Canada even though I’ve grown up there. I always felt a bit more like me when I was here than in Canada. The culture here suited me more than in Canada” he explains.

O’Kane, 25, also graduated in September and got a position at Erottaja fire station. He thinks that it could be a matter of numbers – but also physical fitness – that has meant a lack of immigrant background firefighters in Helsinki until now.

“The requirements to get in are quite tricky. There’s 150 that try out each year and only 15 spots, so it’s quite a small chance to get in” he says.

“You have to meet the requirements, be physically fit and interested”.

Although O’Kane spent many childhood holidays in Finland, did his military conscription here, and speaks Finnish fluently, he still found some aspects of the rescue school syllabus difficult.

“I never learned Finnish in school, so a lot of the testing and lots of reading and going through PowerPoint presentations and understanding and being able to retain that information that was my biggest challenge. All the physical stuff that was second nature, I never had any trouble with that”.

Sex Appeal?

Rescue School Principal Matti Waitinen hopes there’s some ‘sex appeal’ to being a fireman, which makes the job appealing to people of all backgrounds.

“These young men have also found out that female tax payers think they are somehow attractive or sexy [for being a fireman] and that’s not a bad thing.”

Camilo Hernandez Pelaez seems to agree. In a text message, he asks jokingly “could you add to the story that I am two metres tall, very muscular and extremely handsome?”

Nicholas O’Kane takes a more holistic approach to the job.

“I’d say it’s a great place to work, the people are fantastic and nobody really cares who or where you’re from as long as you’re a good guy, that’s the number one thing” he says.

“Make sure you can get through the physical tests, and being a good person gets you the rest of the way”.