At the U.S. Fire Administration, we receive numerous questions throughout the year (and especially during Fire Prevention Week) related to home fire safety, but none more so than questions related to fire extinguishers.
The use of a fire extinguisher in the hands of a trained adult can be a life and property saving tool. However, a majority of adults have not had fire extinguisher training and may not know how and when to use them. Several years ago when I was still on the job as Chief with the Fairfax County Fire/Rescue department, I recall an incident to which my fire company was dispatched. It was an early morning apartment fire where the occupants of a first floor unit attempted to extinguish a kitchen fire using a fire extinguisher without ever calling the fire department. Ultimately, the fire entered the partitions, spread to the upper floors, and tragically killed one occupant on the third floor.
Fire extinguisher use requires a sound decision making process and training on their proper use and maintenance, both were absent in this incident. When should you or your family members use a fire extinguisher to control a home fire? I would like you to consider the following three questions before purchasing or using a fire extinguisher:
- What type of fire extinguisher is needed?
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. For your home, select a multi-purpose fire extinguisher - such as those labeled "Class B-C" or "Class A-B-C" - that can be used on all types of home fires. And make sure the extinguisher isn’t too heavy to handle.
- Is the fire at a point where it might still be controlled by a fire extinguisher?
Portable fire extinguishers contain a limited amount of extinguishing material and are valuable for immediate use on small fires only. 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. If 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:
- Other occupants have left the building (your number one priority!) 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; and
- Your instincts tell you that it is safe to use an extinguisher. If not all of these conditions are present, you should NOT try to use a fire extinguisher. Alert other occupants, leave the building following your home fire escape plan, go to the agreed upon meeting place, and call 9-1-1 or your fire department’s emergency number from a cell phone or a neighbor's home.
For more information on protecting your family from fire, visit Ready.gov/fires – and check out usfa.fema.gov for resources you can share about fire safety.