Information About Fire Extinguishers

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Portable fire extinguishers can save lives and property by putting out and containing small fires. But simply purchasing a fire extinguisher can give us a false sense of security. How many of us know, for example, what types of fire extinguishers are appropriate for use in homes or automobiles? Do most people really know enough to use one effectively? Trying to use a fire extinguisher incorrectly or using one that has not been properly maintained can be dangerous! Please take the opportunity to review the following information and learn more about fire extinguishers. 

Fighting Small Fires

Remember, most residential fire extinguishers are good only for putting out small fires. Some extinguishers discharge completely in as little as 8 to 10 seconds! Before you even consider using a fire extinguisher, you must be sure that:

  • You have the confidence needed to fight the fire.
  • Everyone else is leaving and someone is calling the fire department. Never attempt to use a fire extinguisher before the fire department has been called.
  • The fire is small, confined and is not spreading.
  • You can fight the fire with an unobstructed escape route to your back. Never allow the fire to get between you and your way out!
  • You have the right type of fire extinguisher to fight the fire.

If you are even the least bit unsure about your ability to fight the fire - don’t! Make your escape instead and call the fire department from outside. 

Operating a Fire Extinguisher

Fire ExtinguisherTo operate a fire extinguisher, remember the acronym P-A-S-S:

P – Pull the pin. The pin unlocks the operating mechanism and allows you to depress the lever. Certain fire extinguishers have metal pins while others have plastic loops that must be pulled before the extinguisher can be used.

A – Aim low. Point the extinguisher, nozzle, hose or horn at the base of the fire.

S – Squeeze the lever. Squeezing the lever will discharge the extinguishing agent. Certain extinguishers may have a push button mechanism instead of a lever.

S – Sweep the nozzle, hose, or horn from side to side. Moving carefully toward the flames, keep the extinguisher aimed at the base of the fire and sweep back and forth. Stay low to avoid breathing smoke and toxic gases.

Once the fire is out, watch the fire area and be prepared to act if the fire re-ignites. Have the fire department inspect the fire site even if you are sure that the fire is out.

Matching Your Fire Extinguisher to the Fire

A - B - C

There are three common types of fire in the home. Your extinguisher must match the type of fire you are fighting. Extinguishers are labeled with standard symbols or letters that correspond to the classes of fire they can put out. The three basic classes of fire are “A,” “B” and “C.” The symbols for each class of fire are shown below.

Class A
Class B
Class C
Class A fires involve paper, wood, and other ordinary combustibles. Class B fires involve flammable liquids such as oil, some paints, and gasoline. Class C fires involve energized electrical equipment such as power tools, wiring, fuse boxes, appliances, televisions, computers and electric motors.
  • “Multipurpose” extinguishers (labeled A, B, and C) may be used on all classes of fires and are appropriate for use in homes or automobiles.
  • Extinguishers labeled only for Class A fires contain water and are dangerous if used on grease, gasoline, or electrical fires.
  • An extinguisher labeled with a red slash through any of the fire class symbols indicates that the extinguisher should not be used on that class of fire.
  • A missing symbol indicates that the extinguisher has not been tested for that class of fire.

Extinguisher Size

Portable fire extinguishers are rated for the size of fire they can handle. Ratings appear on the label – for example, 2A:10B:C. In that example, the 2A means the extinguisher carries a rating of 2 for fighting Class A fires and a rating of 10 for fighting Class B fires; the C means the extinguisher can be used safely on energized electrical equipment. The larger the number, the bigger the fire the extinguisher can handle. Bigger models are usually heavier and more difficult to carry. Be sure to purchase a fire extinguisher that is the right size for you.

Fire Extinguisher Maintenance

Most A-B-C fire extinguishers sold for residential use contain dry chemicals and have a gauge to indicate if the extinguisher is fully changed. Periodically check to make sure your extinguisher is fully charged (the arrow should be pointing to the green portion of the gauge). Whenever you check the gauge, also be sure to remove the fire extinguisher from its bracket and turn it upside down. Periodically turning the fire extinguisher upside down helps shake up the dry chemicals inside and keeps them from becoming caked on the bottom of the extinguisher. If the chemicals become caked, the extinguisher may not discharge properly when it is needed.

Finally, many residential fire extinguishers have a limited shelf life and are not designed to be recharged. As a general rule, once a residential fire extinguisher is 12 years old it should be discarded and replaced with a new extinguisher. To safely dispose of an old fire extinguisher, take it outside away from buildings and cars, pull the pin, and discharge the extinguisher while holding it upside down. Discharging the fire extinguisher while holding it upside down will allow the propellant gases inside to escape while keeping most of the dry chemicals inside the extinguisher. If you do not feel comfortable disposing of your old fire extinguisher, consider donating it to the fire department for use in our training programs. If you would like to donate a fire extinguisher to the City of Fairfax Fire Department, send an email to our Life Safety Officer or call 703.385.7830.

Fire Extinguisher Training

Free fire extinguisher training is now available to any homeowners’ association, business, church organization, or other community group located in the City of Fairfax. For more information about fire extinguisher training, please visit our Fire Extinguisher Training web page. If you have any questions about fire extinguishers, please email our Life Safety Officer or call 703.385.7830.