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Helsinki seeks immigrant firefighters

Helsinki Rescue Department currently has no firefighters from an immigrant background. They aim to change that next year to reflect the capital’s population—but there will be no quotas for ethnic minority firefighters.

Palomiehet kantavat varustelaukkua tehtaan pihalla.
Helsinki is looking to diversify its firefighting workforce. Image: Anu Pöntinen / Yle

There is just one female firefighter in Helsinki, and not a single fireman from an immigrant background. Now the city’s rescue department wants to increase diversity in its ranks, and that means a new drive to recruit firefighters from different backgrounds.

This autumn’s training course included two women, which is quite something for a profession as traditional as Finnish firefighting. There have been applications from immigrants to become firefighters, but as yet nobody has made it as far as the school.

"Often the reason has been the physical requirements," says the Rector of Helsinki Rescue School, Matti Waitinen. "Their grades at school would have been fine, even the language skills, but the physical test has been a problem."

No quotas

In Helsinki those with extra language skills will now get extra points in the application process, but there won’t be any extra help for those from a migrant background. The rescue department says it won’t be introducing quotas.

Some 13 percent of Helsinki residents are either foreigners or are children of immigrants, and soon that proportion will rise to 20 percent. Helsinki’s firefighting service wants to reflect that diversity for practical reasons.

"It’s useful when we have the same kind of people we’re trying to rescue," says firefighter trainer Vesa Hyvönen. "There are firefighters of every ethnic background (worldwide), and the same will happen here too."

Need for diversity

There is also a need for diversity among ambulance technicians, who are also trained by the Rescue Department. Waitinen says that certain situations—for instance when a Muslim woman goes into labour—would be better handled by someone other than the archetypal white male who usually mans these services.

"It causes problems if we don’t at that moment have in the unit a female ambulance technician," said Waitinen. "The reaction in Muslim families is pretty different if we send our male first responders to help."

The next chance to apply to become a firefighter in Helsinki will be in January. The Helsinki Rescue Department’s website can be found here.

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