Interview: Chief Goldfeder on the birth of the Secret List
Chief Billy Goldfeder is both a firefighter safety and Internet pioneer, and his works' longevity is due to being simple in focus and unchanging
By Rick Markley
If the fire service had rock stars, he'd be a Beatle. And a big part of that notoriety is because he's been hitting our email inbox every day for nearly 20 years, delivering his unique brand of firefighter safety.
We caught up with the iconic Chief Billy Goldfeder to talk about how the Secret List came into being, firefighter safety and anything else he wanted to talk about — like his new book, "Pass it on: What we Know, What we Want you to Know," which can be ordered here (all royalties go to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the Ray Downey Scholarship Program).
How did Fire Fighter Close Calls and Secret List come into being?
In 1997 I discovered the Internet and started looking at fire and rescue; even as a kid when I got an encyclopedia I went to the fire truck section.
As I got into it, I started sharing information with people — if there was a crash here or a fire there. Back then there wasn't a whole lot on there.
One day someone wrote and asked who was on my list and I said it was a secret. I was sending blind copies. I was just screwing with him; I didn't care if anyone knew who was on the list or not.
Then, after every story I'd write, I'd put in parenthesis 'the Secret List' and that's how it started.
One of my firefighters of the day was a big shot at AOL. So I asked him for unlimited access to blind-copy emails. You could go up to 200 before they stopped you; I was able to get several thousand names. As time went on we grew and grew.
Glenn Usdin had a bunch of us teaching for him at Command School. One day Gordon Graham, who I'd been friends with for a long time, said 'With all that stuff you're putting out why don't you start a web site?'
I didn't have the time or the money back then. He said, 'When you find the time, we'll find the funding.' Several months later after thinking about it, I said I'm going to find the time, and we started Fire Fighter Close Calls.
So it is privately funded with donated labor?
There were other sites coming up then with advertising and stories about anything, and we didn't want either. We wanted to have no advertising, and our focus was on firefighter survival.
For a while it was pretty much me putting the stories together. A friend who's fire department I'd been teaching for, Brian Kazmierzak, is kind of a techie guy and offered to help. We were getting so big and so busy that it was getting hard for me to keep up.
We receive about 150 to 200 emails a day. Brian is our operations guy. As we expanded, we started doing daily and weekly drills; of course Forrest Reader does that. We have our personal survival section and that's run by Pat Kenny.
No one gets a nickel; Gordon pays the bills and we do the work. We've got about eight folks who keep an eye on their own section — sort of like adopt a highway.
We don't want any forums or input because we really don't give a shit what you think. We're right, you're wrong and that's how it works. On a serious note, we are proud of our accuracy. Since we started the Secret List, we've had to issue corrections five times.
How big has it gotten?
The Secret List is at about 220,000 on Facebook, and we have more than double that as far as subscribers. At this stage, if you are into the fire service, you are probably receiving it.
We don't put a lot of crap out there. As soon as we fill it up with too much, you are not going to read it. We spend a lot of time and think very hard so that people are going to read what we're putting out.
If we veer off the mission and start putting stories up that you see on any other blog, we're no longer exclusive. We like being the place to go for firefighter safety.
It's worth a lot of money apparently and we didn't know that until recently. We've had some offers, and, obviously, we have no interest in that.
Where is Secret List and Close Calls now compared to where you hoped it would be when it kicked off?
We started as a joke; I was just passing stuff along. And now it's scary because we feel there's a sense of responsibility. It's pretty surprising.
It's when we get a letter from a chief who just subscribed and he writes back and thanks us. That's a big deal. It's right where it needs to be. We're not dependent on it for income, so there's not that stress. We do it the way we want. We don't answer to anybody except ourselves.
You've got to give back and we don't give back enough in this business. We might think we do: 'Oh, I saved a cat or helped put a kitchen fire out.'
That's not giving back. Giving back is feeding the people who come after you. The book we just published is all for donation.
What's been the biggest tangible impact on the fire service?
If people know who we are, that means they are reading our stuff. You read about a firefighter in Soandsoville who got ejected because he didn't have a seat belt on and maybe you'll put your belt on or slow down for the red light.
That's how we think we're mattering and as long as we keep getting the hits, and as long as people reach out to us and say, 'hey, we read this and we did this,' that's our biweekly paycheck so to speak and it's working and mattering.
Have they impacted firefighter safety?
Ten years ago when we all started getting really serious about it, Gary Briese and Ron Sarnicki brought people around for the first Tampa conference. That was a significant turning point in the fire service.
We're part of the band and if our part wasn't playing, you'd notice it.
Has there been one story from a reader that sticks with you?
The suicide stuff. We had a letter from one who ended up killing himself. We passed it on and did what we felt needed to be done and found out a year later he killed himself.
That's such a dark thing and society hasn't figured that out yet. I don't know how the hell we're going to figure it out other than through our training and education.
I also remember certain things like Charleston. A fire officer from North Charleston called me and asked if I was aware of what was going on, and that escalated. Who didn't that impact?
Is there an elusive problem that haunts you?
Not much. If technology were different, we'd love to have live stuff — if there's an incident somewhere so you can see that. If it's a big, breaking story, we just link to you guys. I can't think of anything that we wanted to do that we didn't do, which is kind of cool.
What do you expect it will look like in 10 or 15 years?
That's one of the reasons I got other people involved, so if I get hit by a bus tomorrow there's a bunch of others who could step up; we've got enough people involved out there.
I think it will be around a while, and if it went away tomorrow, I'm sure there are other sites that would fill in the gap.
Almost every magazine or website has changed ownership since we started and we're still hanging around. We're kind of like the old neighborhood you go back to where nothing much has changed.
We take a serious, serious look before we change anything like format. We like to be the same. All the Internet gurus in the world tell you, you have to change; I don't believe it.
What should every fire chief know about firefighter safety that they may not?
That's easy. You own this. You can be in the Bahamas on vacation, but if firefighter Sally or firefighter Joe gets hurt, you own it.
You need to understand that it is discipline, it's policy and it's training. It is understanding that company officers are the first line of success or failure in most fire departments. I often say to chiefs, 'find me a problem that wasn't initially discovered at the company officer level.' In the end, look at how little time we spend on company officers.
I'd make a monster (National Fire Academy) course for company officer. Executive fire officer is a four-year course; this might be a four- or five-year course. We've certainly improved over the last several years.