Rumors! In the Fire Service?

by Dr. Tim McGrath & Dr. Victoria McGrath

What amazes you the most about firehouse rumors? Is it how they get started, or the fact that your firefighter/medics believe them? We have seen some interesting results from rumors; including the Fire Chief who would start them and then discipline the employee he caught spreading them.

Rumors fill voids in communication. As Chief, when you fail to get your message out someone will fill in the missing parts. The intent could be malicious - to stir the pot - or to invoke hope - the end result is still false information floating through the firehouse. "But in my department the rumors are so off base no intelligent adult would believe them anyhow". Wrong! Rumor creditability is directly proportionate to the intensity (fear) they invoke. The greater the fear the more believable the rumor becomes. Rumors are about emotions not logic.

In today's world rumors now have the internet - blogs - to transmit information instantaneously to infinite numbers who can add to the topic with less knowledge than the original author. Don't be surprised as to the number of individuals who will believe those messages.

Rumor Control Steps
Notice that I used the word control and not prevention. Although good communication will prevent most rumors they will never be completely extinguished:

  1. Be visible - the power of presences is amazing. On a frequent, not scheduled, bases sit with the troops and listen and talk. Listen more than talk and answer what you can. Don't give answers that you are not sure of because it is likely to backfire. Give an honest, concerned response - "I don't have the answer to that but I understand why you are concerned", or "I'll have to check on that and get back to you". (Don't forget to get back to the person as soon as possible.)
  2. Address rumors aggressively and promptly - remember in career departments there are three shifts and therefore, your presence is needed in all of them. Rumors travel from shift to shift much better than official log book entries do.
  3. Rumor Back-Tracking - attempt to establish the source of the rumor and if successful, approach the individual with a non-punitive inquiry, making sure you give the facts. However, individuals who repeatedly spread rumors need corrective measures.
  4. Spreading Rumors Establishes Power - those that spread rumors are often perceived by the group as being one of the "in crowd" when in reality they are not. Remember perception is reality. Rumor spreaders can become fact spreaders for the very same reasons.
  5. Involve Your Office Personnel - Get your office staff involved in positive communication. Do these individuals understand your vision and direction? Don't forget your Administrative Assistant! This individual has a significant amount of informal power and can tap into communication channels that perhaps are unavailable to you.
  6. Utilize multiple means to get your message out - Newsletters, memos, emails, alone might be ineffective but together these can help carry the message. Try posting them on the back of the bathroom stall - a sure way to get them read! Understand that these communication methods are useful; however they do not replace the importance of your personal interaction regardless if it is a career, combination, or volunteer department.
  7. Don't let rumor control become a fulltime job - Distracting the Chief is a great way to prevent work; second only to meetings.

Rumors control is best accomplished through interpersonal relationships. Your officers are your linking pin to the rank and file and make sure they know how to communicate with their shifts. If the officer is not, begin filling that void temporarily, making sure the rank and file is aware that the officer has that information and they should get the information from the officer. Hold the officer accountable for lack of communication or worse yet distortion of facts.

Did you hear that the Chiefs Association is considering...