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Fire Extinguishers

Fire Extinguishers 101

According to a fire loss study done by the National Fire Protection Association, there are about 400,000 residential property fires in the U.S. each year, accounting for more than 3,700 human fatalities each year. Even when all other natural disasters are combined, fires still typically claim more American lives per year.

A fire extinguisher can be a powerful tool to prevent widespread fire loss. The best thing is that a fire extinguisher is a relatively cheap investment, with prices starting at around $20. There are five classes of extinguishers, and each class is marked with a class specific color, geometric symbol, and/or picture.

Types of fire extinguishers

Different types of fires require different types of extinguishers. For example, a grease fire and an electrical fire require the use of different extinguishing agents to be effective and safely put the fire out.

There are also multi-purpose fire extinguishers - such as those labeled "B-C" or "A-B-C" - that can be used on two or more of the above type fires. See diagram below.

Types of fire extinguishers

When to use a fire extinguisher

Portable fire extinguishers are valuable for immediate use on small fires. They contain a limited amount of extinguishing material and need to be properly used so that this material is not wasted. For example, when a pan initially catches fire, it may be safe to turn off the burner, place a lid on the pan, and use an extinguisher. By the time the fire has spread, however, these actions will not be adequate. Only trained firefighters can safely extinguish such fires.
Use a fire extinguisher only if all of these conditions are present:

  • You have alerted other occupants and someone has called the fire department;
  • The fire is small and contained to a single object, such as a wastebasket;
  • You are safe from the toxic smoke produced by the fire;
  • You have a means of escape identified and the fire is not between you and the escape route;
  • You are physically capable of operating the extinguisher;
  • Your instincts tell you that it is safe to use an extinguisher.

If these conditions are not all present, alert other occupants, leave the building following your home escape plan, go to the agreed upon meeting place, and call the fire department from a cell phone or a neighbor's home.

Maintenance

Fire extinguishers need to be regularly checked to ensure that:

  • The extinguisher is not blocked by furniture, doorways, or anything that might limit access in an emergency.
  • The pressure is at the recommended level. Some extinguishers have gauges that indicate when the pressure is too high or too low.
  • All parts are operable and not damaged or restricted in any way. Make sure hoses and nozzles are free of insects or debris. There should not be any signs of damage or abuse, such as dents or rust, on the extinguisher.
  • The outside of the extinguisher is clean. Remove any oil or grease that might accumulate on the exterior.

Additionally . . .

  • Shake dry chemical extinguishers once a month to prevent the powder from settling or packing. Check the manufacturer's recommendations.
  • Pressure test the extinguisher (a process called hydrostatic testing) after a number of years to ensure that the cylinder is safe to use. Find out from the owner's manual, the label, or the manufacturer when an extinguisher may need this type of testing.
  • Immediately replace the extinguisher if it needs recharging or is damaged in any way.
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