2014-02-19

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Firefighting: a Changing Profession

‘For 150 years, men have come to the rescue when there is an accident. Gender equality will help prevent accidents before they happen.’

Several serious fires in recent years have affected mainly people with non-Swedish backgrounds. Women in particular have suffered. Swedish fire and rescue services are facing the important challenge of maintaining and developing the trust of all the different groups in society. In the project Tillämpad jämställdhet i räddningstjänsten, which means applied gender equality in Swedish fire and rescue services, the city of Landskrona’s fire and rescue department is exploring how their communication and services can be developed further.

‘The services must correspond to people’s needs regardless of gender and background,’ says Paavo Frick, fire inspector. ‘We need to develop policy documents in order to approach and treat all citizens equally.‘

‘The notion that a firefighter is supposed to be a white male of Swedish origin is still predominant.’

‘To do this we need to focus on two things: We need to develop the content of our services and we need to develop the work environment. The notion that a firefighter is supposed to be a white male of Swedish origin is still predominant. Our operational plan for 2011 states a goal of 25 per cent of our employees being women. By 2015, the target is 40 per cent.’

Several Reasons Behind the Imbalance

The share of workers in the Swedish fire and rescue services who are foreign-born and women is currently not even three per cent. A publication titledJämställdhet och mångfald inom kommunal räddningstjänst” (gender equality and diversity in Swedish fire and rescue services) lists some reasons for this imbalance: preconceptions about who can and cannot be a firefighter, the education situation, the recruitment process, and the physical and social work environment.

Four of the 50 staff members at Landskrona’s fire and rescue department are women. Only two of these are actual fire and rescue workers. The share of women attending the national training programme for fire and rescue workers – the SMO programme – has been about 15 per cent in recent years.

Emma Johnstone is one of the two firefighters in Landskrona.
‘There is this widespread myth about how tough the physical tests are. You no doubt need both strength and endurance to pass them, but with the right preparations many more people would be able to succeed.’

‘You don’t need to pass the physical tests for some of the positions anymore. The work we do has become much more preventive.’

Johnstone believes that the programme should be promoted in grades 7-9 in order to attract female applicants.

‘Role models are important. We have formed a national network for female full-time firefighters. I think it’s good to have a place to discuss things and share advice and experiences.’

‘At the same time – and perhaps most important: The job has changed.  There used to be no SMO programme, and you often got a job through contacts. You don’t need to pass the physical tests for some of the positions anymore. The work we do has become much more preventive.’

More Focus on Preventive Work

Leading firefighter Ulf Svensson agrees that the job is changing. From mostly hanging out at the fire station waiting for an alert to having a full schedule of doing preventive work.

‘The new Civil Protection Act introduced in 2004 accelerated the changes. It puts property owners in charge of the fire safety in their buildings,’ says Svensson. ‘Regular fire safety assessments reduce the risk of accidents.’

‘Property owners are subject to inspections. So are for example eldercare facilities. We have a responsibility to reach both women and men regardless of social group and origin.’

One important change is the cooperation with police and ambulance crews. Landskrona’s fire and rescue services have reached out to children in grades 2, 5 and 8 for many years. Today there is a Young Rescue group that facilitates dialogue with the city’s young population.

‘Gender equality and diversity can save lives.’

‘You can save lives in many ways. That’s something the gender equality and diversity approach has made us realise. Today we have a much stronger focus on what causes accidents. We help people, businesses and organisations help themselves. What can be done to prevent accidents? What went wrong when an accident occurred?’

‘Gender equality and diversity can save lives,’ says Paavo Frick. ‘The services should be the same regardless of gender and origin.’

Lisa Gålmark
Edited: 25 Oct 2016
Published: 19 Feb 2014
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