Be prepared: How to properly use a fire extinguisher

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We should all have at least one fire extinguisher somewhere in our home, but it’s not enough to simply keep one under the kitchen sink. If there is a fire, your safety—and the safety of your home—depends on knowing how to use that fire extinguisher correctly.

In case your fire extinguisher has been sitting around collecting dust, here’s everything you need to know before brushing it off and fighting a fire in your home the right way.

Choose the right fire extinguisher

The first thing you need to know is the different classifications of fires, and the second that not all fire, you need to understand what types of fires you may have to deal with and make sure your extinguisher can get the job done.

Most household fires fall into one of the following categories:

  • Class A: These fires are fuelled by solid combustibles like paper, wood, fabric, plastic, and rubber.
  • Class B: These fires are fuelled by flammable liquids such as petrol, paint, turpentine, lubricants and some cleaning products.
  • Class C: These fires are started or fuelled by flammable gases like hydrogen, butane, and methane.
  • Class D: These fires are started or fuelled by combustible metals, such as magnesium, aluminium, and potassium.
  • Electrical (sometimes called Class E): These fires are started or fuelled by equipment that requires electricity or circuitry to operate. Once the electrical item is removed, the fire changes class.
  • Class F: These fires are started or fuelled by cooking oils and fats.

Though there are six main types of fires, there are five main types of fire extinguishers. The fire risk at your home or business will determine which type (or types) you need, as well as the size and weight required to put out a fire.

In Australia, the types of fire extinguishers are water, foam, dry powder (of which there are two different subtypes - ABE and BE), carbon dioxide, and wet chemical. Of course, there are also fire blankets, which offer more limited extinguishing capabilities.

There is no single type of fire extinguisher that works on all types of fire. The chart below from Fire & Safety Australia shows which extinguisher types are most effective for each class of fire.

Fire extinguisher selection chart

How to use a fire extinguisher

Once you understand the different types of fire extinguishers and their uses, you need to be able to properly operate one.

The best way to be ready for a fire emergency in your home is to study the steps below and review them regularly so you can protect your home and family.

1. Identify a clear exit/escape route

Before operating the fire extinguisher, make sure you have a clear evacuation path. If you cannot put out the fire, you’ll need to make a safe exit. Consider this when determining where to store your fire extinguisher, and make sure you’ll have multiple exit options nearby after you retrieve it.

2. Stand back

Face the fire and keep your back to the clear exit you earlier identified. You should stay between six and eight feet away from the flames as you prepare to operate the fire extinguisher.

3. Discharge extinguisher

It can be difficult to think clearly during an emergency, so fire safety has a long-standing acronym to help you recall the steps involved in operating your fire extinguisher. When extinguishing a fire, you should PASS:

    P: Pull the pin on the fire extinguisher.

    A: Aim the extinguisher nozzle on the hose low, toward the base of the fire.

    S: Squeeze the handle or lever to discharge the extinguisher.

    S: Sweep the nozzle back and forth. Keep the fire extinguisher aimed at the base of the fire and move it from side to side until the flames are extinguished.

image with steps on how to use a fire extinguisher

4. Keep an eye on things

After the flames appear to be out, continue to watch the fire area to make sure it doesn’t reignite. If the fire does start up again, repeat the PASS process.

5. Call firefighters

If you didn’t have the chance to call the local fire service before discharging the fire extinguisher, do so now. They will be able to inspect the site of the fire and make sure that it is completely extinguished.

6. Get to a safe place

Once the fire is out, or if you are unable to extinguish the fire, leave the scene and find a place out of reach of the fire.

Common fire extinguisher mistakes

Because we don’t have regular opportunities to practice fighting fires, it’s easy to make simple mistakes when the time comes. Know where most people go wrong so you can avoid making a mistake while under pressure.

  • Don’t ignore the instructions: Thoroughly read the operating instructions that came with your fire extinguisher. Make sure all able members of your home read and understand the instructions. Review them regularly when you conduct fire drills and go over your evacuation plan.
  • Don’t use the wrong type of fire extinguisher: Never use a fire extinguisher for a class of fire that is not indicated on the label. Use of the wrong extinguisher can make a fire worse.
  • Don’t let your extinguisher go bad: Fire extinguishers come with an expiration date, after which the extinguishing agent is no longer effective. Know the dates on your fire extinguishers and replace them as needed.
  • Don't neglect fire extinguisher maintenance: The extinguisher's pressure gauge should always point to the green zone. When it drops to the red zone, it doesn't have enough pressure to release the extinguishing agent. This can happen even if the extinguisher is never used. Adding pressure (also called "recharging") makes the extinguisher fully functional again, but this isn't a DIY job. A certified fire services company should recharge the fire extinguisher for you. According to Australian Fire Safety Standards, portable fire extinguishers need to be inspected every six months.
  • Don’t forget about exits: When you decide where to keep your fire extinguisher, make sure it is in an easily accessible location near exterior doors. Also, consider the most common places where fires occur in a home and place your extinguishers accordingly.
  • Don’t keep it a secret: Make sure that everyone in your home knows where the fire extinguishers are kept. Share the location, along with your entire fire escape plan, with babysitters, house sitters, and any long-term visitors.

Next steps

The best way to keep your home and family safe in the event of a fire is to be prepared. Regularly review how to use a fire extinguisher and point out the location of each one in your home. A little advanced practice can make all the difference when you’re faced with the stress of an actual fire in your home.

Rebecca Edwards
Written by
Rebecca Edwards

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