Understanding Portable Fire Extinguishers – Use and Limitations
Having a fire extinguisher in your house is one of the biggest steps you can take for fire safety, however it is not the only thing you need to do. It is essential that you have the right type of extinguisher and know when and how to use it in case an emergency arises. With knowledge in these areas you can be more fully equipped to use the extinguisher and keep your home or work area safe.
The first thing to remember is that portable fire extinguishers are only to be used for small fires in their beginning stages. If a fire is out of control and protective gear is needed to get close enough to spray the extinguisher then evacuate immediately and notify the fire department.
It is also important that you are prepared with the right kind of fire extinguisher installed and regularly inspected. There are a few different types of fire extinguishers. Not all fires are alike and therefore they cannot be put out the same way. For example, spraying water on a fire that was started with oil can actually make the fire spread.
Class A Rated Extinguishers are to be used for fires started with wood material, paper, cardboard and some plastic. This extinguisher should be used to put out fires that leave ash after they are burnt. These fires are safe to fight using water.
Similarly, extinguishers labeled “B” put out gas, oil and grease fires. Class “C” extinguishers are safe to use on electrical fires. Class “D” extinguishers are for combustible metals and class “K” extinguishers are made for the kitchen when fires are started with cooking oils.
Many fire extinguishers are labeled with a combination of the above ratings. For example, “A,B & C” fire extinguishers could be used on any three types of fires explained above for A, B and C rated extinguishers. “A,B & C” rated extinguishers are the most common and they spray out a white powder that is safe to use on wood materials, gas, oil, grease or electrical fires.
It is also helpful to note that fire extinguishers come in a few different sizes but neither one can be sprayed for very long. The smaller extinguishers last for six to ten seconds and the larger ones last for a maximum of 35 seconds. For a small household fire that is just beginning, this should be plenty but for a larger fire this will not be sufficient.
Once you have determined that you have the correct type of extinguisher, make sure it is placed in the best location. In the work place or public they should be very visible. At home where they are more likely to be stored in a cabinet or under a sink, make sure everyone in the household knows where they are kept.
Having the right kind of extinguisher is important. However, if you are in a public place such as a daycare, store, library, etc. and you are the first person on the scene within the first few minutes of a fire beginning it is safe to assume that the fire extinguisher closest in sight will be the right one to use. Many public places have multi-use extinguishers that will cover almost any source of fire in that area. If it has been 10 or 15 minutes or if you question whether you can contain the fire with an extinguisher, immediately evacuate and call for help.
Using a fire extinguisher is very simple, however, most people tend to panic when they try to use one for the first time. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) teaches the acronym “PASS” to help you remember how to use the extinguisher. There are four steps to actually using the extinguisher. First, Pull out the pin. You will need to break the thin plastic loop around the pin called the tamper seal but it will not take scissors or much force. Second, Aim the nozzle or hose end of the fire extinguisher at the base of the fire (not at the flames but at the source of the fire). Third, Squeeze the lever. Fourth, Sweep from side to side to get all the burning material at the base of the fire.
It is also helpful to remember these general guidelines regarding fires: Do not back yourself into a corner of the room without an exit in case the fire gets out of hand. Make sure there is always an escape behind you as you use the fire extinguisher. Also, keep a close eye on the burnt materials after you gain control of the fire. It is common for the smoldering ash to flare up again.
After you have pulled the pin from a fire extinguisher be sure to always have it inspected by a professional annually. Even if you do not believe you used it all, once the tamper seal is broken it must be checked before it can be stored and assumed safe to be used again. Even if you have not used your extinguisher but you notice that it has been damaged, has any sort of corrosion, the pressure gauge is not in the green area, or the tamper seal is broken, then it needs to be assessed by a professional. Most companies that inspect extinguishers will leave a tag around the extinguisher showing when it was last inspected.
Take a minute to check your fire extinguisher in your home and work place to make sure that it is the correct type of fire extinguisher for the kind of fires that may happen in that area. Check them regularly and get them inspected annually or as needed. Keep them in a place where they are easily accessible. Lastly, make sure the people in your home or at work are comfortable with using a fire extinguisher in case of an emergency. Teach them the acronym “PASS” to help in a state of surprise or shock when judgements may become clouded. Reminding yourself and family of these important tips even though they may never be needed is of the utmost importance. You will never regret being comfortable and confident facing an emergency.