Be Prepared: How to Properly Use a Fire Extinguisher

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October is fire prevention month, which means it's time to review fire safety and prevention.

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.

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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.

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Most household fires fall into one of the following categories:

Class A: These fires are fueled by solid combustibles like wood, paper, and cloth.

Class B: These fires are fueled by flammable liquids such as oil, petroleum, and gasoline.

Class C: These fires are started or fueled by faulty wiring, fuse boxes, and appliances.

Class K: These fires are started or fueled by cooking oils and greases, animal fats, and vegetable fats.

All fire extinguishers are labeled to indicate which classes of fire they are designed to combat. Most household fire extinguishers are considered multipurpose and labeled for use in A, B, and C classes. Class K extinguishers are heavier duty and will need to be bought separately. We suggest this 6-liter extinguisher, as it best fits the Fire Department Connection’s recommendation.

Fire extinguisher labels also include symbols to indicate which types of fires the extinguisher is designed to fight. If there is a circle and a red slash through any of the symbols, that indicates that the extinguisher cannot be used to fight that type of fire.

Household fire extinguishers are also rated for the size of fire that they can safely handle. The higher the rating (equivalent to the number of gallons of water it would take), the larger the fire the extinguisher can put out.

  • Class A fires are rated 1 to 40.
  • Class B fires are rated from 1 to 640.
  • There is no size rating for Class C fires.

Note that higher-rated extinguishers are often heavier, so be sure that you can comfortably handle the size of the fire extinguisher you keep at home.

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 the fire department

If you didn’t have the chance to call the local fire department 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.


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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. Most importantly, extinguishers that are labeled for Class A fires only cannot be used on electrical or grease fires. However, it is safe to use an extinguisher labeled for Class B and C fires on a Class A fire. While Class K fires are technically a subset of Class B fires, other contents in Class B extinguishers can make Class K fires worse, so it’s best to get a separate extinguisher for cooking fires.
  • 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 needle 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. OSHA requires portable fire extinguishers in the workplace to be recharged or tested every 6 years.1 Homeowners can follow the same timeline.
  • 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.

Need a fire extinguisher? Check out our buyer's guide: Best Fire Extinguishers

Rebecca Edwards
Written by
Rebecca Edwards
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. She has been a journalist and blogger for over 25 years, with a focus on home and community safety for the past decade. Rebecca spends dozens of hours every month poring over crime and safety reports and spotting trends. Her expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her expert advice and analysis in places like NPR, TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, HGTV, MSN, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, and an ever-growing library of podcast, radio and TV clips in the US and abroad.

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