Firefighter recounts experience of racism, harassment in emergency services sector

The former emergency services worker waived his right to anonymity because he wants to inspire a cultural change in the sector, as Finland's social affairs minister calls for action.

Terence Sam said he hopes the values of the emergency services sector can be reflected in the efforts to tackle the problems. Image: Pasi Takkunen / Yle

Seinäjoki resident Terence Sam has told Yle about his experiences of racism and harassment while working as a firefighter for a regional rescue department.

Sam's recounting of his experiences comes a day after Yle revealed that sexual harassment, misogyny and even overt hatred of women was widespread within the emergency services sector.

In an interview with Yle, Sam said that derogatory comments, harassment and other offensive 'mouthing off' could come from colleagues or even from the people he was trying to help in the line of duty.

He added that the term mouthing off, or suunsoitto in Finnish, is too light an expression to accurately describe the kind of speech that is prevalent within the emergency services sector.

"Sometimes they laughed, but some of them were serious about the fact that women do not belong in the fire brigade or do not know how to drive. Racist language and things about people were said, like that they wouldn’t deserve help," he said.

Sam has previously worked as a professional firefighter for the Ostrobothnian Rescue Department, but his current role is as a fire safety consultant.

He said he did not want to speak under the cover of anonymity because he hopes that sharing his experiences will be the catalyst for a significant change in the working culture within the emergency services sector.

He further added that he also hopes the industry will introduce the possibility that people could report incidents of harassment anonymously.

"We are talking about a minority who are doing these things. I urge the good guys in the sector to come forward and say that now enough is enough - this is not an acceptable way of behaving," he said, adding that he hopes the positive values of the emergency services sector will be reflected in the tackling of these issues.

Yle contacted the Ostrobothnian Rescue Department's director for comment on Sam's experiences but they declined to comment about an individual case, only saying that any incidence of racism is regrettable.

Minister: Management must step up

Finland's Minister of Social Affairs and Health Hanna Sarkkinen (Left), whose ministry is responsible for occupational health and safety, said the law alone cannot eradicate sexual harassment within the industry.

Speaking on Yle TV's A-studio current affairs programme on Wednesday evening, Sarkkinen said it is essential that the sector's top management commit to tackling the problem through active leadership and intervention.

"Laws alone do not remedy social ills, but require implementation and leadership," Sarkkinen said, adding that she was surprised by the severity and scale of the problem within the sector.

"It is essential that top management is committed to preventing sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour, and that it is carried out through the organisation's active communication, leadership and intervention," the minister added.