Not My Father’s Fire

I have to start off with a little back ground. I grew up in the fire service. The fire service, to me, is not a job, not a career; it is a craft. Similarly throughout history, as a craftsman would teach his son his craft from a young age, I too, was lucky enough to have started my craft from a young age. As I have watched the fire service evolve, I have noticed that Firefighters have an issue with change. It is a discussion that is often had at family gatherings with more than 70 years of experience, collectively. To me, change is a fundamental part of perfecting the craft of fire service, though I keep hearing the same thing in these discussions: “fire is a fire, put the wet stuff on the red stuff”. While I agree putting water on fire is an intricate part of putting out fire, I don’t feel that the fires my father fought are the same as mine. It all goes back to change. Think back to the interior of your 1980’s living room.

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That 1980’s living room was composed of organic, “Class A” material with single pane windows. No energy rated insulated walls with insulated sprayed foamed roofing. That “Class A” material burns at about 8,000 B.T.U’s per pound. These homes were constructed to breathe, they were designed to allow for gas exchange. Now, think of your new construction 2014 home.

Everything has an energy rating. Almost everything has composite material in it or is solely made up of plastics. It really is like a solid form of gasoline. In a fire, these products put off about 16,000 B.T.U’s per pound. That’s double of what you had in the 1980 home, alone. Furthermore, there are more pounds of product. So why is this important? Well, the days of kicking down a door with no Nomex, three quarter boots, jeans, and a long coat cannot happen anymore. I know that we have all heard the same stuff before. Like I said earlier, it all goes to change. If we as firefighters want to keep our craft moving forward we have to adapt. After looking at my father’s great career, I know I need to grow upon what he’s taught me. To me, there are a couple of important thing I have adapted.

Firstly, I hear a lot of “we do not spray water on smoke”. I have heard this my whole career. Unlike my father’s day of firefighting, this isn’t applicable in today’s fires. There is a time and a place to spray water in to smoke, it can tell you a lot about the atmosphere you are in. I have heard this called “penciling” in some classes. I don’t feel this is a good word for the tactic. “Penciling”, to me, says that water has to be in short bursts, no matter what. Short burst are useful but it shouldn’t detour us from flowing water to cool our atmosphere. I teach to use a short burst for the first and second shot. This will tell us what the temperature is at the ceiling by if we get steam conversion. Also, it tell us how far it is from the floor to the ceiling by the time it take the water to hit the ceiling from the nozzle. The longer the distance the more time till you’ll hear it hit or steam. Furthermore, if you get droplet to coming down from the ceiling it tells you that ceiling temperature is under at least 212 Fahrenheit. This tells you the volume of smoke and heat above your head. I use this as a tool to prevent flashover conditions. Remember the more BTU’s you can kill with steam conversion the better off everyone will be; not so much to steam your crew.

Secondly, I remember my father always teaching me to vent everything. In a 1980’s household this would be a great idea with proper hose placement. The goal being to try and release the heated gases and promoting a tenable environment for firefighter and occupants. There is a problem with this tactic in today’s structure fires, in my eyes. It goes back to the new construction of homes; with higher BTU’s and Gases like hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, benzene, and carbon monoxide that is being produced at higher rates. Also, with a tighter home via the extra insulation not letting gases move though the home getting us a smaller container causing faster flashovers. This leads me to my point controlling of vent points are vital to 2014 firefighting. I believe in extremely controlling my vent points. With the fact that smoke is fuel and if we have not control of our fire, we need to control our vent point. This in my option keep the risk of flashover down. Remember that Carbon monoxide alone needs anywhere from 12.5% to 74% to igniting at 1166 f. What put this in prospective for me is this Gasoline needs anywhere 1.2% to 7.1% to ignite. Propane requires 2.1% to 9.5% to ignite. If you look at the range with all three gases CO doesn’t need much to have the right mixture to igniting. The Ignition temperature may be a lot less in Propane and Gasoline but in a structure fire it will not take long to meet the ignition temperature. Keeping control of vent points will help to not to get the mixture of gases causing ignition.

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Thirdly, I hear a lot from the more seasoned firefighters that the gear we have is encapsulating us and causing us to not feel heat resulting in firefighter going deeper in to fires, this is one that really didn’t come from dad. I recently was running a training fire and was operating as a safety officer. When I had a very seasoned firefighter try to make entry without a Nomex. When asked why the firefighter would do this his reply was I want to be able to feel the temperature of the fire with my ears. Beyond the obvious administrative problems with doing this; there is a fundamental issues here. I believe our gear has evolved to the needs of the fire service. Again, it fall back to the fact that fires are hotter, and faster, than 30 years ago. The days of your ears as an indicator for where and temperature of the fire cannot happen anymore due to the high BTU’s. Furthermore, I feel firefighter are not going deeper in to structure fires but firefighter are needing higher rated gear to deal with higher heat that is occurring in structure fires.

Finally, I would like to say that with all of this information, the fundamental task of putting water of fire has not changed. I feel it is the way we get to the fire that has changed. More often we as firefighter’s need to be more vigilant of our surrounding and know our enemy, the building. The last lesson I would like to share is a quote given to me by my father: “never be scared of change but always honor our traditions”. I will never master my craft because it is a constantly changing but I will always grow upon the lesson of my father and the men and women that sacrificed so much before me. This paper is not meant to put down how pasted fires were handled but more importantly grow upon the lesson of the pasted.


Lt. John D. Murphy

“Rule #65 The name on your helmet represents who you work for. The name on your coat represents who raised you. Do them both justice.”


Lt. Murphy is a guest contributor to and a close friend. I would love to hear what you think about his article.

Stay safe my Fire Fam and remember Don’t Drink the Koolaid.


  1. I’ve been fighting fire for the past 30 years and liked the article very much, well done!!!

  2. I have been in the fire service for 16 years and enjoyed this read!! Things are ever changing and we need to adapt and overcome!!!

    • Thanks Jeff, we are always trying to get information out to everyone when we can. This was a great article Written by my friend David Hernandez, he is a wealth of information. The article actually allowed me to reflect on my 23 years in the fire service, and made realize I needed to wake up a little…
      -Lt. S

  3. Great article, the biggest take away from this article is that we as firefighters need to continual train and aquire the knowledge needed to fight today’s fires. We still have homes that were built using the old construction methods and materials, so as I view it we need to know when the homes in our first due areas were built and what materials were used. As Frank Branningan stated “know you enemy”, the building is our enemy. Learn as much as you can about fire behavior and building construction. Be safe brother and sisters!

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