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Do you have a fire extinguisher in your home?  Do you know how to use it?  If you’ll learn about fire extinguishers, buy one (or more), try using a fire extinguisher, and then maintain your fire extinguisher, you will be able to put out small fires if you need to.

1. Learn about them.

Fires are classified into four different types, depending on what’s on fire.

A (green triangle) – wood, paper, cloth, trash, plastics (“ordinary combustibles”)

(red square) – flammable liquids, including gas, paint, petroleum, and propane

C (blue circle) – energized electrical equipment, including motors, transformers, and appliances

D (yellow star) – combustible metals, including potassium, sodium, aluminum, and magnesium

K (black hexagon) – cooking oils and greases, including animal and vegetable fats

There are many different types of extinguishers, but the most common type is a “Dry chemical” extinguisher, which can be used on A, B, and C fires.  “Wet chemical” extinguishers can be used on type K fires.  It is important not to use the wrong type of extinguisher, because it could make a fire worse or create new hazards.

Fire extinguishers are rated and labeled with numbers and letters.  The number before the A, if multiplied by 1.25 will tell you the extinguisher’s equivalent to gallons of water.  The number before the B tells the size of the fire in square feet that the extinguisher should be able to put out.  There is no number before the letter C; it just means that the extinguisher will not conduct electricity.

2. Buy one (or more)!

It’s a good idea to keep a fire extinguisher in a central area of your house.  If you have a very large home, you may want more than one fire extinguisher.  You may also want to place a fire extinguisher in your garage or workshop.  There are also small fire extinguishers made for cars, as part of a vehicle emergency kit. Keeping a fire extinguisher in your home may lower your home insurance premium; check with your insurance agent.

3. Use one.

PASS” is a simple acronym to help you remember how to use a fire extinguisher.

Pull the pin.

Aim the hose at the base of the fire.

Squeeze the lever.

Sweep the nozzle from side to side.  Begin from a safe distance and gradually move closer as the fire is extinguished.

I had the opportunity to use a fire extinguisher on a controlled fire as part of a CERT training activity.  Consider participating in a local CERT program, or contact your local fire department to see if they offer any opportunities for members of the community to learn to use fire extinguishers.  If you cannot do this, at a very minimum, practice the steps without removing the pin or squeezing the lever.  Fire extinguishers are heavier than you would expect, and you will find this to be a worthwhile exercise.

IMPORTANT: fire extinguishers are intended to control small fires.  If a fire has reached the ceiling, do not try to use a fire extinguisher.  Get out!

If you actually need to control a fire, FIRST pull a fire alarm, and call 911.  SECOND, assist anyone who needs help getting out.  THIRD, use an extinguisher to control the fire, if it still seems safe to do so.

4. Maintain them.

Buying a fire extinguisher is not enough—you need to maintain it.  If you don’t maintain your extinguisher, you could go to use it and have nothing happen, or a pressure problem could cause the extinguisher to explode.  This actually does happen!  One time, when I was working at a small restaurant, the fire extinguisher in the kitchen exploded!  They had to close the restaurant for several days while they cleaned the kitchen.  It made a huge mess.

Each month, check to make sure that your fire extinguisher is where it belongs.  Be sure that it is accessible.  Also check the gauge to be sure the pressure is correct.  By regulation, fire extinguishers must be maintained annually by a service person.  If you are maintaining a fire extinguisher for a business or public place, you will definitely want to do that.  If you are maintaining a small, personal fire extinguisher, it may be more cost-efficient to simply replace your fire extinguisher following the manufacturer’s recommendations.

5 Responses to “Fire Extinguisher Basics”

  1. Emily

    Thanks!

    Well, it depends. If you just have a small extinguisher, most people just replace them because that’s easier and cheaper than having an extinguisher serviced.

    When you do have extinguishers serviced, the service people come to you. You can find local service people in the yellow pages under topics like fire equipment or maintenance. There are large and small companies that service fire extinguishers, but (at least in Utah) they all have to register with the state fire marshal. You may be able to get a list of service people or companies on the fire marshal’s website.

    Another really good idea is to check with your local fire department to see what services they offer. They may be able to refer you to people for servicing, or (depending on what type of extinguisher you have) they may be able to do it. Plus, fire departments often have a lot of really neat other community resources, too. Mine has a “heart safety” program, for instance, so they do free CPR and First Aid classes for my residents of my city.

  2. Rock

    I’ve had an extinguisher in my kitchen for about five years now. There’s no guage on it. Is there some way I can tell if it’s likely to fail?

    • Emily

      Not really. If the handle is wobbly or broken, or if the pin that you have to pull out is missing, or if you’ve used the extinguisher before then you would probably want to replace it. Otherwise, if there is no gauge the only way to know is to have a service person check it. I think most fire extinguishers are good for 5-15 years. Check with a service person (I’d just look in the yellow pages) to see what it would cost to have it checked, and then if it costs more than it would to replace it, I would either:

      1. Replace your kitchen extinguisher and use the questionable one to practice! Start a small fire in a safe place (outside!) and then use the old extinguisher to practice the “PASS” steps. Using a fire extinguisher is kind of different than you would expect (it’s heavy, for instance), so it’s a good idea to practice in a non-emergency situation.

      2. Move this extinguisher to a “back-up” location and have a newer one (with a gauge this time!) in your central, kitchen location. Some people keep fire extinguishers in their garage, or on another floor (if your home has more than one floor). Since this fire extinguisher would probably still work, you could keep it in a second location “just in case,” but if you go to use it and it doesn’t work, you’ll still have a more reliable one to depend on.

      3. Or, leave it right where it is until you’re ready to replace it. Still turn it upside-down and right-side-up to keep the contents from caking (if they haven’t already), and then just keep a big box of baking soda nearby. It makes a really good substitute, AND it can be used on grease fires, while the extinguisher most-likely can’t. And then when you’re ready to replace your extinguisher anyway, get one with a gauge next time. I think most or all of them have gauges now, anyway. :)

  3. kevin

    The fire extinguisher I bought for our car came with a zip tie attached to the release pin – like the one in the bottom photograph of this article. The problem with this, as I see it, is that I don’t want to have to screw around cutting off that zip tie in an emergency. They’re tough to get off, even with a sharp knife.

    But without the zip tie, the pin could easily fall out, especially since we’re keeping it in a car. To hold the pin in place, in lieu of a zip tie I used a heavy rubber band – the type type you get with bundles of asparagus, broccoli, etc… The pin is very secure, but I can easily overcome the resistance of the rubber band if I needed to.