It’s every homeowner’s nightmare: A small fire starts in the kitchen and quickly grows out of control, or a candle’s flame ignites a lampshade, spreads to the window curtains, and consumes the home in the blink of an eye. With so many combustible materials in the average household, fire is an ever-present danger.
Fortunately, you have a portable fire extinguisher in your home, so you and your family should be safe in the event of a fire, right? Well, maybe. While a portable home fire extinguisher can be effective in quenching small fires, you can’t rely on it unless it’s fully charged and properly maintained and you and all your family members have been properly trained on when and how to use it.
It’s extremely important for homeowners to understand that portable fire extinguishers are designed for immediate use on small fires, not for large or spreading fires. In fact, even small fires can be a challenge for a homeowner to control with an extinguisher if the conditions aren’t just right. The extinguisher must be large enough to combat the fire at hand, and the operator must be completely familiar with its capabilities ahead of time. Remember, it’s too late to start reading the label directions once a fire has started.
What to look for when you buy
When shopping for a fire extinguisher, choose a model that is labeled by an independent testing laboratory, such as Factory Mutual (FM) or Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and make sure the pressure gauge is on “full” and the unit was manufactured within the past year. Check the control head to make sure it’s not made of plastic. The pressure in the cylinder can cause these heads to fracture, resulting in “rocketing” of the extinguisher’s contents. You may also have difficulty finding a company that’s willing to service or refill extinguishers with plastic heads. Whatever style you buy, be sure to check with your dealer to determine how your unit should be serviced and inspected.
It’s also vital to ensure you can physically handle the extinguisher. Some models with additional capacity can be quite heavy, and there’s no advantage to paying for that extra flame retardant if you don’t have the physical strength to lift and operate the extinguisher.
The right extinguisher for the job
Each fire extinguisher is labeled based on the type, or class, of fire it will put out. According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), extinguishers are classified as Class A, B, C, D, or K. There are also multipurpose extinguishers, such as those labeled “B-C” or “A-B-C.”
Here’s how the USFA defines the different extinguisher classes:
- Class A extinguishers put out ordinary fires in ordinary combustible materials, such as cloth, wood, rubber, paper, and many plastics.
- Class B extinguishers are used on fires involving flammable liquids, such as grease, gasoline, oil, and oil-based paints.
- Class C extinguishers are suitable for use on fires involving appliances, tools, or other equipment that is electrically energized or plugged in.
- Class D extinguishers are designed for use on flammable metals and are often specific for the type of metal in question. These are typically found only in factories working with these metals.
- Class K extinguishers are intended for use on fires that involve vegetable oils, animal oils, or fats in cooking appliances. These extinguishers are generally found in commercial kitchens, such as those found in restaurants, cafeterias, and caterers. Class K extinguishers are now finding their way into the residential market for use in kitchens.
Multipurpose extinguishers rated for type A, B, and C fires are most commonly recommended for home use.
Remember to PASS
The National Fire Protection Association urges everyone to remember the word “PASS” when it comes to fire extinguisher use. This memory device stands for Pull, Aim, Squeeze, and Sweep. First, pull the pin located at the top of the cylinder and, with the nozzle pointing away from you, release the locking mechanism. Next, aim the nozzle at the base of the fire and squeeze the lever slowly and evenly, sweeping the nozzle from side to side.
When to fight the fire and when to flee
According to the USFA, you should attempt to fight a fire with a portable fire extinguisher only if the following conditions exist:
- 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
- Your instincts tell you that it is safe to use an extinguisher.
If all of these conditions are not present or you have any doubts about your ability to fight the fire, get everyone out of the house and call 911. ❦