Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on July 1, 2016.

Knowledge = Safety

A conversation with Billy Goldfeder, keeper of "The Secret List," on firefighter safety, the attainment of wisdom, and much more


The 1980’s cartoon series “G.I. Joe” ended each episode with an often corny and sometimes salient lesson, always following roughly the same script: A few adolescents get an oafish idea, like jumping their bikes over a downed sparking electrical wire, when a prominent member of the Joe squad materializes to explain their error in judgment. The schooled kids, grateful at being spared whatever harm might have befallen them, emphatically shout, “Now we know!” To which the soldier replies, “And knowing is half the battle!”

For more than two decades, fire chief Billy Goldfeder has been a real-life firefighting G.I. Joe with a Yosemite Sam mustache, spreading lessons and knowledge learned from countless incidents, accidents, and sometimes tragic mistakes on the fireground. Through videos, articles, lectures across the country, and his massive online following, Goldfeder has tried to impress on his fellow firefighters the importance of knowledge and the consequences that can occur in its absence. His guiding principle is the more you know, the safer you are.

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In the mid 1990s, Goldfelder and a partner founded the subscription email newsletter “The Secret List,” which now boasts more than 300,000 subscribers. Each subscriber receives constantly updated information on recent fireground mishaps and accidents, with carefully gleaned insights about what went wrong and the lessons that were learned. Goldfeder and a partner also run a popular website, Firefighter Close Calls, which publishes the Secret List and a great deal of other fire service news, including updates on research and firefighting technology.

Goldfeder, 61, has been a firefighter since 1973, and currently serves as deputy fire chief of the Loveland–Symmes Fire Department in Ohio. He is on the board of directors of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. He has served on several NFPA and IAFC committees and has been the chair of the IAFC’s Safety, Health, and Survival section.

Goldfeder recently spoke with NFPA Journal about the current state of firefighting safety and the problems that continue to concern him.

How did the Secret List get started and what purpose do you see it serving?

I discovered the Internet in 1996 and started sharing fire events with people. Over time, more and more people asked to be added to my list, and it just grew and grew. It’s about getting the word out. Years ago, if there was a fire somewhere you’d have to read about it in the newspaper, but in most cases you’re not going to see any notice of an incident in a town hundreds of miles away, even if there was a firefighter injury or death. Or maybe you’d wait for NFPA Journal or Fire Engineering or one of those magazines to come out with the story, but by that point you’re four or five months behind it. But with the Internet, right now you and I sitting here can look at our phones and see who has a fire. We can listen to it, and in some cases even watch it. It’s really crazy. So that was my thinking, that we can pass this stuff on really quickly and the more you pass on, the more people see it and they are reminded, “Maybe we should drill on that. Maybe our truck has that problem. Maybe we don’t have adequate staffing.” That’s the purpose.

Your list now has about 330,000 subscribers from more than 20 countries. Why do you think it’s become so popular with the fire service?

I think one of the reasons we’ve been successful is you only get the meat out of it, there’s no advertising or anything. It’s “here’s what’s going on, here’s what you need to know.” I figured if my firefighters needed to know stuff, why wouldn’t everybody?

With all that you know, what are the main safety problems in the fire service today? What issues keep you up at night?

It depends on the night. Let’s take tonight. The other day I saw a fire where a firefighter fell through the floor of a townhouse. The fire was in the basement, and he had a thermal imager on the apparatus but didn’t take it with him—that’s the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. We’re putting information out there, NFPA puts it out there—we’re always putting stuff out there, but people need to pay attention to it. We are quick to complain about stuff as firefighters, and I’m among them, but when we are given something we ask for, when the community pays for good equipment, we need to use it. It’s 2016—I had my first thermal imager in 1995. You wore it on your head and it weighed a ton. Now you can buy them for $1,500, and they are the size of your cell phone—carry the damn thing!

Are incidents where firefighters are injured or killed preventable in most cases?

We know statistically, through the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and NFPA, that the great majority of firefighter deaths are preventable. In apparatus incidents, firefighters are killed because in many cases they don’t wear seatbelts and are ejected. In building collapses, if a building has been burning for three hours and it comes down on a firefighter, well, three hours of burning might be a hint that it might collapse. I’m not trying to be insensitive, but let’s take away the emotion and answer your question. There are certainly a few heroic line-of-duty deaths each year. There are risks we have to take but there are also many we don’t have to take.

In a different vein, if you’re a firefighter and you haven’t had a physical in 20 years and you weigh 350 pounds and you have a heart attack, it shouldn’t come as a shock to anybody.

That’s the difficult part, it seems, getting firefighters to understand where that line is.

Sometimes there is that challenge. We go to dangerous places that are on fire, and sometimes we have to take risks. But there is no reason to drive 80 miles per hour to a fire, not wearing your seatbelt, blowing a red light, and getting killed. That’s ridiculous.

What is important to understand is that the best way to honor a firefighter’s death is to learn from it and not repeat it. If a firefighter fell through a roof and it was obvious upon arrival that, by using technology, training, and experience, the firefighter should not have gone up on that roof, it is time that we look at our department and determine at what point we do and don’t go up on the roof.

If you were to suddenly become king of firefighter safety, what changes would you implement immediately?

I’ve always had this one vision. In the law enforcement world, every police department in the country has a computer tied into the National Crime Information Center. That way, when there are people wanted, a “be on the lookout for this bad guy” alert goes out to every police department. We don’t have that in the fire service. I’ve always envisioned a computer in every firehouse, paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or whoever, not unlike the Secret List. It would say, “Here’s what happened, here are some photos, study it and learn it.” I think there is value in that. In my world I am always looking at my phone or computer, reading NFPA Journal, but that is not your average firefighter. It’s up to the gung-ho people and the leadership in each fire department to make sure they are getting that info out there. The reality is that we’re really only communicating with a fraction of the fire service each day.

In your presentations and writings you are a big advocate for the fire service to not drag its feet in adopting new technology and research. Why?

I am all for the old-fashioned way of doing things—the basics are critical, and we need to know how to use an axe and throw ladders. But we need to add the new stuff to our toolbox, whether it’s a thermal imager or a new study. When there is new information out there, we have a responsibility as fire chiefs and firefighters to learn as much as we can and add it to our repertoire, so that when I get to a fire I have one more thing that I can apply to that situation.

In your opinion, what are the main impediments to the fire service adopting new ways of doing things?

Getting that word out is half the battle—there’s also the personal end. Let’s say you’re a captain and you think a lot of this new stuff is b.s.—“I don’t like what UL and NFPA and ISFSI are doing on these new studies.” Well, it’s not a matter of what you believe—it’s not about you. I don’t really care if you like it or not. The next time you fly do you want a pilot that says, “Nah, I don’t like these new procedures, I’m going to fly the old way”? Of course you don’t, and firefighters have that same obligation. Do you want a Hearst tool to do an extraction job, or do you want a pair of scissors? You may like using scissors, but the Hurst tools or Jaws of Life are going to do a better job. So we have an obligation to open our minds a little bit and listen to this new stuff and apply it for what’s best for the people experiencing the fire.

All that said, you’ve been giving presentations and running the Secret List for about 20 years. Do you think firefighters are safer today than when you first started?

Oh yeah, of course. Technology, training, and the Internet have had a lot to do with that, just getting information out there. We are training more now than we have in years, at least in my world. We are more science based in how we do things. We are learning that way, and that’s great.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Top Photograh: iStockphoto