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Fire Extinguishers & Fire Safety

We've all seen fire extinguishers in schools, public buildings, and even at people's homes.  Fire extinguishers are excellent tools for putting out fires and saving lives, but many people don't know how to use them properly and effectively.  It is important to know that there are different extinguishers for different types of fires, and how to handle an extinguisher.  Read below and you will always be prepared in the event of a fire.

Fire Classification
Fires are classified by what type of material is burning.  

Class A fires refer to most fires that catch in ordinary objects.  Ordinary objects include clothing, toys, carpets, and papers.
Class B fires refer to fires that are based in flammable liquids such as grease, oil, or gasoline.  It is important to remember that grease and oil can be found in most kitchens, and also in some bathroom products such as lotions and hair balms.  Garages are hot spots for Class B fires, as there can easily be grease, gas, or oil on the ground, in tanks, or on rags.

Class C fires occur when electrical equipment such as wires and electrical appliances catch fire. 
Class D fires are less common in houses as the other classes of fire.  They refer to fires that catch in metals such as magnesium, titanium, potassium and sodium.  Water or liquid chemicals generally do not extinguish these fires. They often require an extinguishing dry powder to put them out. 

Using the Right Extinguisher
Once you have determined the class of fire, it is important that you use the proper extinguisher.  All classifications are shown on the faceplate on the front side of the extinguisher.  Some extinguishers are marked with multiple fire classes such as AB, BC and ABC.  These extinguishers are capable of putting out more than one class of fire.  For this reason, most people keep ABC fire extinguishers so that no thinking has to be done in the event of a fire. 

How to Use an Extinguisher
Fire extinguishers are simple to use. 

P- Pull the pin located at the bottom part of the nozzle.  Yank it out.

A- Aim the extinguisher nozzle at the bottom of the flames, where the combustibles are.

S- Squeeze trigger keeping the extinguisher upright as you spray.

S- Sweep the extinguisher from side to side making sure to spray the entire area of the fire.

The directions are also printed on the back of the extinguisher. 
Remember: if the fire gets out of control, get away immediately and call the fire department to come put the fire out. 

Almost all fires are small in their early stage and can be put out quickly if the proper fire extinguisher is available, and the person discovering the fire has been trained to use the fire extinguisher at hand.

Portable fire extinguishers must be:

  1. Approved by a recognized testing laboratory (Extinguishers manufactured in the U.S. are generally approved by Factory Mutual (FM) and listed by Underwriters' Laboratories, Inc. (UL));
  2. Of the proper type for the class of fire expected;
  3. Located where they are readily accessible for immediate use and in sufficient quantity and size to deal with the expected fire;
  4. Inspected and maintained on a regular basis so that they are kept in good operating condition; and
  5. Operated by trained personnel who can use them effectively.

Portable fire extinguishers must be visually inspected monthly to assure that:

  1. Fire extinguishers are in their assigned place;
  2. Fire extinguishers are not blocked or hidden;
  3. Fire extinguishers are mounted in accordance with NFPA Standard No. 10 (Portable Fire Extinguisher);
  4. Pressure gauges show adequate pressure
    (CO2 extinguisher must be weighted to determine if leakage has occurred);
  5. Pin and seals are in place;
  6. Fire extinguishers show no visual sign of damage or abuse;
  7. Nozzles are free of blockage.

Maintenance of an extinguisher should consist of a complete examination, involving disassembly and inspection of each part and replacement where necessary. Maintenance should be done at least per year or more often if needed.
To protect against unexpected in-service failure hydrostatic testing of portable fire extinguishers should be done. An unexpected failure can be caused by several factors including internal corrosion, external corrosion, and damage from abuse. Hydrostatic testing must be performed by trained personnel with proper test equipment and facilities.

OSHA requires hydrostatic testing according to the following schedule:

Table 1 From 29
CFR 1910.157

Type of Extinguisher

Test Interval

Soda acid (soldered brass shells) (until 1/1/82)


Soda acid (stainless steel shell)


Cartridge operated water and/or antifreeze


Stored pressure water and/or antifreeze


Wetting agent


Foam (soldered brass shells) (until 1/1/82)


Foam (stainless steel shell)


Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF)


Loaded stream


Dry chemical with stainless steel


Carbon dioxide


Dry chemical, stored pressure, with mild steel, brazed brass or aluminum shells


Dry chemical, cartridge or cylinder operated, with mild steel shells


Halon 1211


Halon 1301


Dry powder, cartridge or cylinder operated with mild steel shells


* Extinguishers having shells constructed of copper or brass joined by solf solder or rivets shall not be hydrostatically tested and shall be removed from service by January 1, 1982. (Not permitted.)

Fire extinguishers, correctly used on the type of fire they are intended for can have a large role in stopping major fire damage and dollar losses. When walking by a fire extinguisher, you'll know that all of the letters and numbers have specific meanings and why it is located where it is.

For additional information on portable fire extinguishers and their proper placement and use, contact your local fire department.

For more information about proper storage of flammable liquids click here.

For answers to frequently asked questions about combustible liquids click here.


Sources for More Information

29 CFR 1910.157, Portable Fire Extinguishers.

29 CFR 1910.158, Standpipe and Hose Systems.

29 CFR 1910.159, Automatic Sprinkler Systems

U.S. Department of Labor—OSHA, 29 CFR Parts 1900 to 1910, Revised July 1, 1993.

NFPA Standard #10, Portable Fire Extinguishers.

ANSI/UL 711 Rating and Testing of Fire Extinguishers.

National Fire Protection Association, Fire Protection Handbook, Sixteenth Edition. R.R. Donnelley & Sons.

National Safety Council, Accident Prevention Manual for Industrial Operations, Engineering and Technology, Ninth Edition. R.R. Donnelley & Sons.

American National Standards Institute (ANSI)

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)

National Safety Council

Underwriters' Laboratories (UL)

by Bailey Stoler

Questions & Answers

Q: Are signs required to identify fire extinguisher locations?

A: Locations must be identified, but signs are not required. 29 CFR 1910.157(c)(1)

Q: Can halon still be purchased in a portable fire extinguisher?

A: Recycled halon can still be used in portable fire extinguishers, although it is very expensive and alternatives such as CO2 should be used when possible. Because of environmental concerns, many suppliers no longer carry halon fire extinguishers.

Please Note: The information contained in this publication is intended for general information purposes only. This publication is not a substitute for review of the applicable government regulations and standards, and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the cited regulation or consult with an attorney.
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