Cia Sjöstedt is an IMRF Trustee and the CEO of Sjöräddningssällskapets, the Swedish Sea Rescue Society.

She has been a keen sailor from an early age. She worked in a range of jobs after completing her education, starting and co-owning a communication and advertising firm for ten years before moving to work in the charitable sector. 

She joined the Swedish Sea Rescue Society as Director of Communications in 2012 and became Deputy CEO in 2014.  She became CEO in 2017 and an IMRF Trustee in June 2019.

The Swedish Sea Rescue Society was started by enthusiasts over 100 years ago. Today, the organisation comprises 74 rescue stations, more than 260 rescue units and 2,300 volunteer lifeguards based along the Swedish coast and covering the country’s largest lakes.

Alongside a range of non-for-profit initiatives, most of the daily operations are covered by membership fees from 131,000 members.

Here, Cia tells us a bit more about the Swedish Sea Rescue Society and her career with the organisation.

What made you join the Swedish Sea Rescue Society in 2012? What interested you about the role and the organisation?

The Swedish Sea Rescue Society has a very strong brand in Sweden, so it felt like an exciting assignment.

Another very important reason was that I was interested in working for an organisation that is driven by value-based leadership, that does so much good without asking for anything back, an organisation with a very big heart. The Swedish Sea Rescue Society has all of that.

What was the organisation like when you joined it?

The Sea Rescue Society has had a strong development curve throughout the time I have worked for the organization.

It has been a strong red thread throughout the years and still is. We are a little better organized today, we have better communication with our volunteer sea rescuers thanks to the digital platforms that exist today, we collect a little more, we have a few more members, we complete more membership assignments and we build more boats.

So overall, we have increased in all areas. But we work with the same vision as 114 years ago and we also have the same statutes now as then.

Could you tell us a bit about SSRS – for example, the relative numbers of employees/volunteers?

The Swedish Sea Rescue Society is involved in approximately 90 percent of all sea rescues in Sweden and receives no government funding.

The Society is financed by membership fees, donations, and voluntary work. Despite this, or possibly because of this, the Society has doubled the number of sea rescue stations in recent years, tripled the number of rescue volunteers available and built 260 modern rescue vessels.

This expansion has enabled the Swedish Sea Rescue Society to meet its goal of departing within 15 minutes or less from the time an alarm is received. Furthermore, all our crews live close to stations and take part in training several times a month. 

Thanks to 2,300 volunteer crew members, our rescue services are always available 24 hours a day anywhere along the Swedish coast and on the major lakes.

The volunteers work as carpenters, doctors, fishermen, salesmen, plumbers, teachers, and many other occupations. The sea rescue volunteers are willing to go out in any weather, at any time even during normal working hours or in the middle of the night. 

This large volume of voluntary work enables the Swedish Sea Rescue Society to manage with a small administration with approximately 40 employees, as much of the costs for normal activities are covered by membership fees.  The Swedish Sea Rescue Society has more than 131,000 members.

What kind of rescue situations does the organisation have to deal with most often - shipping, leisure yachts, open sea swimmers?

The most common reason for leaving the quay is usually recreational boats, but of course incidents involving shipping and swimmers also occur.

The most important work we do is preventive help before the situation has become a danger to life.

We carry out more than 5,000 membership assignments (which is where there is no threat to life, but a member has asked for assistance) and about 1,400 search and rescue missions each year.

The three most common causes of alarm are:

  • Machine or propeller failure
  • Grounding
  • Severe weather or exposed position

How has the global pandemic affected SSRS and its operations/fundraising/activities etc? Are there any new ways of working that SSRS will continue moving forward?

The only thing we know is that we do not know anything. Rarely have Socrates winged words been so appropriate when reflecting on a year like 2020. 

We started the year with confidence and full-time approval. Boats would be built, training would be held, station houses would be inaugurated.

But as we all remember, the conditions for every human being around the world changed. As a humanitarian rescue organisation, we asked ourselves early on; how can we help? In a short time, we developed guidelines and equipment to help patients with suspected COVID-19 get care.

It was both a difficult and an easy decision. It's hard because we didn't want to put our volunteer sea rescuers at risk, simply because we're an organization you can trust in all conditions, not just when it's comfortable. 

If there is one thing the Swedish Sea Rescue Society has shown in 2020, it is that we are quick-footed.

We're changing to be able to provide the help where it's needed. Help was also needed in more places. During the year, preventive emergency calls to our members increased by 52%.

The summer was historically intense, and we are glad that we have been able to rescue so many. We can see that despite the corona restrictions causing boat parts to get stuck at the factory, training to be conducted remotely and station house openings to be postponed – we have flourished in other ways.

That empty calendar became full anyway, albeit filled by things which were very different to what we had first planned.

The second lesson of the year is the humility to accept that things don't always turn out the way you intended, but it will be OK.

It is difficult to predict the future, but I know one thing: the Sea Rescue Society continues, thanks to the commitment of our volunteer rescuers, and the support of members and donors.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. Over the past year, this thesis has really been proven in the Swedish Sea Rescue Society, particularly regarding both meetings and training that have had to be switched to digital platforms.

We are far from alone in this, but we will continue to work in this way in the future, but with the hope that we may be able to meet a little more IRL (in real life) than in the past year.

What would you like to achieve for Swedish Sea Rescue Society as you look to the future?

The Sea Rescue Society has not changed its purpose since its inception in 1907. We are still there to keep up the interest in sea rescue in Sweden, to develop new methods and technology for sea rescue operations and to run our stations with motivated and well-trained volunteer rescuers as well as providing the best working tools we can develop in the form of rescue boats.

In 114 years, a lot has happened, and society today has few similarities to what it looked like when the Sea Rescue Society was formed. Far fewer people lose their lives at sea, and today much of our work is focused on the recreational boat sector and people's behaviour in the water in connection with swimming, activities on ice, etc.

If I am going to sum it up, my goal is to keep doing what we're doing so that we have the right resources to keep saving lives at sea.

Have you faced any challenges as a female leader in a traditionally male industry?

I think that most women, regardless of the profession chosen at some point, have felt that they have faced challenges because they are women. Both from men and women.

Sure, I've faced challenges, but I've also received amazing support because I'm a woman in a traditional male industry.  

And then that support often comes from men.

How does Swedish Sea Rescue Society encourage more women to get involved?

At the head office we are 50/50 of men and women but at our rescue stations it looks different and there we barely get up to 20 % women amongst our volunteer sea rescuers.

As I said, it is a traditionally male industry, but it's not just about attracting more women, we must make them want to stay as well.

We also try to encourage women to get involved by making sure that we show female role models in all our communications and marketing.

I believe that the most important factor here is that we have an inclusive leadership in our stations that fosters a culture that is permissive and promotes women, and more importantly promotes diversity. This is something we are actively working on.

Quite simply we will have a better and healthier workplace if we can achieve greater diversity.