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Finland unveils first gender neutral fire station

The small town of Sysmä in southern Finland is home to Finland’s first gender neutral fire station.

Sammutusasu Sysmän vanhalla paloasemalla
Firefighters' changing rooms are gender-neutral in Sysmä. Image: Marjo Pirilä /Yle

Sysmä’s new fire house features individual dressing rooms and shower stalls to enhance inclusion as all firefighters can wash at the same time.

“We planned this facility 40 years into the future. We believe fire stations will see more gender equality in the coming years,” Taneli Rasmus, a former technical director for the municipality told Yle.

Mira Leinonen, who chairs the Women in Fire and Rescue Services Commission, an international network, says Finland has room for improvement in this area.

“Finland’s oldest fire stations date to the 1800s. At some, cleaning cupboards have served as women’s changing rooms,” she explained.

Enhancing women’s inclusion

Jorma Sainio from Sysmä’s voluntary fire department said women and men at the station used to take turns showering.

But it’s this type of exclusion that Leinonen says is a problem.

“When a rescue operation is finished, firefighters head straight to the shower, at the same time often discussing their last job. Women are excluded from these conversations,” Leinonen explained.

Being excluded weakens group cohesion and dampens work satisfaction. Leinonen said international studies show these are reasons women often leave the profession.

But at Sysmä, women will no longer have to wait for the men to finish their shower first. At the new station everyone can hit the showers at the same time thanks to the installment of private dressing and shower cabins.

Uniform fit

But Leinonen points out the changing rooms aren’t the only area where women have been overlooked. Pregnant firefighters often struggle with their uniforms.

“One woman firefighter had already had her baby by the time she received a uniform that fit her,” Leinonen added.

That said, small women also have trouble wearing clothing and gear designed for men, particularly as uniforms should fit snugly for safety reasons.

The whole sector is built on the premise of a male norm. The structures, gear and attitudes need to change for women to want to join and remain in this field, according to Leinonen.

“Rescue services are for everyone, so it would be strange if our personnel didn’t reflect society as a whole,” Leinonen explained.

In Finland, some 30 women work as fire chiefs and ten percent of contract firefighters are female.

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