Elvis, Urban Legends, Grapevines and The Firehouse


Elvis has left the building, in the literal sense.  Elvis Presley came to mind today because of the Facebook vote we are taking for a colleague as to whether or not he and his fiancee should elope to Vegas and get married by an Elvis impersonator.  But as happens with many ideas of mine, coffee, and driving home from work, Elvis was soon replaced to musings on the life of urban legends and likewise, those musings to the issue of the "Firehouse Grapevine". 

Of course, this then led to further examination of the term, "grapevine" and my wondering if it had some sinister Latin origin like maybe Caesar heard Brutus planning through a grapevine or something (by the way, the word "sinister" has it's origin from the Latin, "left", as in your left hand, and I am a lefty but not sinister. But I digress…). 

Of course, the origin of the phrase is nowhere near as sinister (or left-like).  The origin of the phrase, according to the website, The Phrase Finder, comes from, well, read it for yourself:

The first practical public demonstration of the telegraph was given in 1844, when Samuel Morse sent a message from Washington to Baltimore. The invention was widely welcomed as a means of rapidly communicating news. It soon became clear though that close communities already had effective word-of-mouth communications. Soon after the telegraph was invented the term 'grapevine telegraph' was coined – first recorded in a US dictionary in 1852. This distinguished the new direct 'down-the-wire' telegraph from the earlier method, which was likened to the coiling tendrils of a vine. It's clear that the allusion was to interactions amongst people who could be expected to be found amongst grapevines, i.e. the rural poor. 

In 1876, The Reno Evening Gazette ran an article about a bumper corn and grape crop. They commented on the fact that the people who were then called Indians and Negroes seemed to be already aware of it (hardly a surprise you might think as it would have been they who had harvested the crops):

"It would seem that the Indians have some mysterious means of conveying the news, like the famous grapevine telegraph of the negroes in the [American Civil] war. The Pioneer Press and Tribune says that, while the first telegraphic news of Custer's death reached them at midnight, the Indians loafing about town were inquiring about it at noon."

 The term 'bush telegraph' originated in Australia, probably influenced by 'grapevine telegraph'. That referred to the informal network that passed information about police movements to convicts who were hiding in the bush. It was recorded in 1878 by an Australian author called Morris: "The police are baffled by the number and activity of the bush telegraphs."

 In the UK it was the 'jungle telegraph' – referring to communications in outposts of the British Empire around the same period.

 Of course 'heard it through the grapevine' is best known to us as the Motown song, recorded by Gladys Knight & the Pips in 1967 and by Marvin Gaye in 1968. It's salutary that, whilst the telegraph is long gone, the person-to-person communication that preceded it is still going strong.

 So by now I'm sure you are asking, "Where are you going with this, anyway?"  Here's where I am going: Is there an emergency service organization (or any organization, for that matter) anywhere in which a certain amount of information, often incorrect or incomplete, isn't passed around from day to day, affecting the morale of the personnel?  I know of none.  People, by their nature, are curious.  Any lack of information creating a vacuum in their field of knowledge will rapidly be replaced by something; if that something is the guy or girl at the station who likes to gossip and/or stir things up, you can guarantee that THIS information is what will be disseminated, not the truth.

So what created this vacuum in the first place?  A lack of information.  We used to joke in our organization that if we wanted to know something about our department, we needed to read the local newspaper.  The flow of information from 'The West Wing" as we call that section of our Headquarters, was notably absent.  Was it an issue of trust?  Was it an issue of neglect?  Who knows, and it's old history anyway.  The point is that in an absence of information, someone will gladly fill that spot up for you.  So do you want it to be the correct information, or the rumors?

Our organization, in this administration, has gone forward with an agreement that we should be as transparent as possible.  Short of personnel issues and issues that require a certain amount of timing, we have been very open about our plans and have gone to extraordinary lengths (sometimes, admittedly, frustratingly extraordinary) to include others in the process of running a world-class emergency service.  But the efforts are paying off.

With some isolated exceptions, most of our personnel seem to understand more about the nuances of our operation and they seem to appreciate the candor of our chief.  A key phrase that is used, especially in this time of uncertainty: "I don't know".  When you don't know something, you should say so, because people, and more specifically, firefighters, can spot BS a mile off.  But the effort to find out, or to at least explain the reason why we actually don't know, is imperative for building the trust of the people who work with you.  If you don't know because of ignorance, shame on you; but if you don't know because of ambiguity or fluctuating conditions, well, be frank with people and educate them so they too can help solve your challenges.

While the best way to kill off the grapevine is to cut it off at the root, in my limited viticultural experience (none) I have been led to believe that the root stock, with proper care, can be regrown.  In similar fashion, although you may fire the "pot stirrers", it is likely that the core issues that caused that grapevine to prosper will soon be right back at work, disrupting your team.  Furthermore, although we may not agree with their methods, if you listen to what those annoying and often counterproductive individuals are saying, you might find a shred of truth.

So while I can't attest to the current status of Elvis, and I can spot what seems like an urban legend and check it out, the closest I have come to solving the riddle of the firehouse grapevine is to insure my people are informed and involved.  And if you dig to the heart of any well-regarded organization, you'll find those characteristics are shared among all of them.  My advice to you: Be the same.  Listen to your people, let them listen to you, share the knowledge, and build consensus and collaboration.  May the fruits of your labor be productive and many.

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