Helsinki Rescue School is making another push to attract more women to become firefighters, with the application period open until the end of January.
Traditionally a male dominated job field, there have been some successes in recruiting women in recent years but the Helsinki Rescue Department is still not representative of the community it serves, with just three female firefighters.
“Every year since 2015 we have tried to raise this subject up, that we need more women and also people who have a different cultural background” explains Taisto Hakala from Helsinki Rescue Department.
“We now have three female firefighters, and many more female paramedics working in the department. Recruiting female paramedics is not a problem” he tells News Now Finland.
Where women are put off from applying to the school, Hakala says, is because of the perception that the physical tests will be too grueling.
“There’s still some people who are also thinking this job is too masculine” he adds.
The recruitment process
Of course not everyone who applies to train as a firefighter is accepted to the programme and the route to even starting classes is a tough one.
The first part of the process to get a place at the Rescue School involves a fitness test for everyone. Applicants must meet the minimum performance requirements for all tests and can’t be afraid of heights, or dark confined spaces.
On the basis of the physical tests and other background factors like education and work experience or other specialist knowledge, approximately 60 applicants go through to the next stage of the process which is an interview.
After the interview, 30 people are left for psychological evaluation, which results in just 15 people chosen finally to go the Rescue School with three applicants held in reserve.
Two female recruits in class
In 2017 something happened for the first time in the history of Helsinki Rescue School: two female firefighters graduated from the same class.
Sanna Elonen, 32, was one of the graduates and now works at Haaga fire station.
“There’s many things that made me decide to apply for the school. The main reason was a friend I had, and he told me he was going to his shift and he was excited about it. I thought, who gets excited about going to work? And that got my attention.”
Although Sanna has always kept herself in excellent physical shape – she works a side job as a personal trainer – she says the tough physical side of learning to be a firefighter wasn’t the most difficult part of attending the Rescue School.
“I don’t think the physical tests were extremely hard. For me the hardest part was being mentally prepared for the things I didn’t have any education about before” she tells News Now Finland.
“It’s not only that you have to run fast, or be able to squat some heavy weights, it’s more about learning to use a chainsaw, or different kinds of tools and devices that you’ve never even touched before. And driving the trucks!” Elonen explains.
Fitting into firehouse life
Although the other firefighters are men, the rescue service as a whole has lots of women working in roles like paramedics and in staff jobs.
But still, it’s a male-dominated profession, so how does Sanna Elonen fit in with the inevitable off-colour jokes or laddish humour?
“The jokes are pretty bad, but I’m the one who is telling the jokes, so I can’t put an angel sign on my forehead” she laughs.
“I’m one of them. Some men, probably the older ones they want to think of me as like a pure little lady, but that has never been a problem once they get to know me. They see I’m not a princess, and I can be myself around them.”
Elonen, who comes originally from Karjaa, is studying in her spare time. Because although this is a job she loves now she recognises that it might not last forever.
“In the future, if I’m honest, I don’t know at the age of 55 or 60 if I’ll be able to do the work” she says.
The department faces challenges of low salaries, a growing city and more demanding, ever-increasing workload – although it plans to open some new stations in the coming years to mitigate some of these issues.
“I always keep telling whoever I meet, don’t think about it too much. If you have the feeling you want to try to go and be a firefighter, then just apply and you will see. That’s my message” says Sanna Elonen.
“It’s very good work, but it’s hard.”
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