Yle investigation uncovers widespread sexual harassment within emergency services sector

According to the Interior Ministry and the sector's two main organisations, an overhaul of the working culture within the sector is required to tackle the issue.

Yle's investigation revealed that few victims of sexual harassment dare to make an official complaint. Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle

The Ministry of the Interior, the Finnish National Rescue Association (SPEK) and the Finnish Association of Fire Officers (SPPL) have all strongly condemned reports of sexual harassment in the emergency services sector.

The ministry and the organisations were responding to an investigation conducted by Yle, which uncovered evidence that sexual harassment, misogyny and even overt hatred of women were rife within the sector.

In addition, an Instagram account called Emergencyservicestoo (siirryt toiseen palveluun), set up in August, has compiled nearly one hundred anonymous reports of verbal harassment, sexual harassment and even rape associated with emergency services operations.

However, Yle also discovered that official complaints have rarely been made to employers or management.

"The matter is very serious and I am very sorry that all of this has happened," said Kimmo Kohvakka, Director of the Interior Ministry's Emergency Services Unit.

The issue is also being taken seriously by organisations within the sector, with SPEK's Development Manager Niko Ara and SPPL's Executive Director Ari Keijonen both telling Yle they agree with Kohvakka that all forms of harassment must be tackled and eradicated.

However, all three added that this will require a huge amount of work, as the problem appears to affect the entire industry's working culture.

Harassment cases previously reported

The emergency services sector has only started to investigate workers' reports of harassment in recent years, as previous surveys also revealed evidence of the problem.

However, Keljonen of the Finnish Association of Fire Officers SPPL told Yle the industry has so far lacked the necessary tools to identify and eliminate cases of workplace harassment.

"Unfortunately, it has to be said that no part of our sector has been able to prevent harassment comprehensively," he said.

The association provides in-service training courses to emergency sector workers, and Keljonen said this training must in future also cover topics such as equality, diversity and discrimination.

The responsibility of the supervisor to intervene in cases of harassment must also increase in the future, he added.

The extent and seriousness of sexual harassment within the sector have only really been brought to attention, and for wider discussion, because of the Emergencyservicestoo account, according to Keljonen. The ministry's Kohvakka and SPEK's Ara agreed with this assessment.

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Emergency and first aid services have traditionally been a male-dominated sector. However, the proportion of women working in the industry has been growing steadily since the beginning of the 2000s, but still women only make up 12 percent of the sector's estimated 5,700 employees. Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle

The cases of harassment, as detailed by the Instagram account, clearly show that measures taken so far to tackle the problem have been insufficient, Kohvakka pointed out.

SPEK's Ara agreed, further adding that the issues have not been addressed with the level of seriousness that they should have been.

The Interior Minister is therefore currently preparing an equality and non-discrimination programme, Kohvakka added, which will inform workers and volunteers how to act in situations of harassment and to whom to report incidents.

Change in work culture is needed

Yle interviewed a number of emergency service workers about the culture of harassment within the sector, and heard that sexually suggestive comments are often excused as "firefighting humour" that a member of the work community is expected to tolerate.

The ministry, as well as the sector's two main organisations, all said that they were aware that these kinds of comments are prevalent within the industry, and that a change in the working culture is required.

"Whether you are a professional or a volunteer, you have to look in the mirror and consider how your own behaviour might feel to another person," Ara said, adding that his association SPEK intends to introduce further training aimed at changing the current work culture.

Workers interviewed by Yle also said that many within the sector do not dare to report cases of harassment. According to Ara, it is now necessary to find out why this is so in order to encourage workers to speak up in the future.