Firehouse drama: Why is gossip so prevalent among firefighters?

How to manage firehouse negativity and learn to redirect our own bad behavior

Rumors are like wildfires. The gossiper is the arsonist who carelessly ignites the rumor while taking pleasure in watching it move at a rapid rate of spread, out of control, creating destruction to innocent people.

Gossiping has always been a part of organizations, groups, families and even our culture. People gossip because of their own insecurities and jealousy. It’s part of human nature.

Enter the firehouse “think tank.” When you have a group of individuals cohabitating, like in a fire station, the opportunity for gossip increases. Unfortunately, in many firehouses, gossiping has become almost a national pastime, a tradition as pervasive as red fire trucks.

When you have a group of individuals cohabitating, like in a fire station, the opportunity for gossip increases.
When you have a group of individuals cohabitating, like in a fire station, the opportunity for gossip increases. (Photo/Getty Images)

Think about puppies for a minute. If they don’t have a bone to chew on, they redirect that urge to the furniture or your shoes. Give them a bone and they are preoccupied, even content.

The same is true of firefighters. When we are busy with lots of calls, significant incidents or fire department projects, gossip subsides. Personnel are simply too busy to bother with it. But when call volume is down and personnel have fewer items to preoccupy their time, the think tank goes into effect and gossip is the outcome. Like the puppies chewing on furniture, firefighters like to chew on each other or the administration. Throw in a promotional exam, and you’ll really see the knives come out. Even best of friends attack one another – all “justifiable” moves in the spirit of competition. Everyone is fair game!

The root of gossip

So, why would someone talk behind your back? It really comes down to the fact that they (knowingly or subconsciously) can’t reach your level or have what you have, or they want to be seen as the person who has the knowledge – the power – which, in turn, gets them attention. This is rooted in jealousy and insecurity. Further, people will gossip about you because they lack the courage to discuss something with you – to your face – or they lack the ability to articulate how they feel in a constructive manner.

Just like people trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” firefighters get stuck in the comparison trap. They will gossip about you because your life is working. You made this happen, and they are struggling with theirs. They seek validation of their comments by talking to others about you. These haters feel the need to paint you in a negative light, because they can’t stand seeing others succeed and not them.

“Don’t worry about backstabbers, they’re the people who tried their hardest finding faults in your life instead of fixing the fault in theirs.” – Unknown

How to manage firehouse gossip

Like fires or EMS calls, we know gossip isn’t going away. So, how do we manage it?

The first and best thing is to do nothing! This is hard. Our natural propensity is to get even. Though you may be tempted to act out or confront the person, the best response is often to ignore the situation.

Because people often gossip as part of attention-seeking behavior, simply ignoring them can be a great solution, as they will get bored and stop talking about you. No reaction means it is not getting to you.

Next, set up a perimeter, your boundary. You may have to work with them but keep them at arm’s length. Do not kiss their butt, but do not be blatantly mean. Take the high road. Keep it civil but keep your distance.

Plead the Fifth! Remember, whatever you say can and will be held against you. Do not tell them anything personal about you, as this could later serve as ammo for even more gossip. Loose lips sink ships, so keep them zipped!

Like every coin has two sides, many people have two faces. If a fellow firefighter was the one who told you about the gossip, you may want to make sure they have your best interest in mind. Close friends do not spread negative information about you that could hurt your feelings or reputation.

Hopefully, if a friend does hear someone else gossip about you, they will defend you. You can then make a clear suggestion: “Next time Firefighter Smith talk about me, please ask them to talk to me directly, face to face.”

Further, be wary of friends who gossip to you about someone else. After all, if they talk about other people with you, they will talk about you with other people.

“Gossip is a very dangerous tool. We should be more wary of the gossiper, and not the gossip they’re trying to relay to you.” – John Lydon

Look in the mirror

Guilty! We have all participated in gossip. Think about the time you gossiped about someone. Like the tank on our rigs always need to be full, when our self-esteem tank is low or empty, that tends to be when we engage in gossip. When we feel good about ourselves, we defend others.

Own it! If you started it, it is yours! Do not try to make excuses. Take responsibility for your behavior and apologize. Yes, your first reaction is to backpedal and deny it. Instead, offer a sincere apology and let them know it was wrong. You should not have been talking about them behind their back. Assure them you will not do it again – and live up to your word!

Like a memorandum of understanding (MOU), consider making an agreement with the person about not talking behind their back again. They need to hear this from you. But if you do make an agreement, stick to it! If you get caught a second time, expect the relationship to end.

Learn to redirect your negativity. Read some 10 things to do instead of talking behind someone's back from Laura Zigman.

Or turn gossip into a positive. Linda Willing offers some tips in “Gossip at the firehouse: How to enable ‘good gossip’ and shut down negativity.”

“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

Final thoughts

We teach the rookies in the academy to not “catch the ball” every time someone throws negativity or gossip at them. Our propensity is to catch it, attach ourselves and hang on to it. You do not have to catch everything that is thrown at you. Other’s opinions about you are just that, opinions and not the truth.

It is important to develop and maintain your own self-confidence. You will never stop others from gossiping, however, the more self-confidence you have, the less impact gossip will have on you when you become the target.

Hopefully, after reading this, your tank is full, you are running on positive energy and not taking things personally!

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