How To Use a Fire Extinguisher

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Fire extinguishers. You pass them all the time as you walk the hallways at work or school, and hopefully at home too.

But no matter how many times you've seen them in your day-to-day life, you've probably given little thought as to how you actually use one. Maybe it never crossed your mind, or maybe you assume it's so simple it's not something you need to learn.

Well, it's true that using a fire extinguisher isn't rocket science by any stretch, but there are a few basics you need to be aware of — and probably aren't. According to FEMA, the majority of Americans don't know how to use an extinguisher, even if they have one in their home. This is a dangerous knowledge gap. Fires double in size every 60 seconds, so you don't want to be fumbling around in an emergency situation, reading over the instruction manual as a small flame on the stove grows into an inferno.

Today we'll talk about some guidelines for choosing an extinguisher and storing it in your house, and then discuss how to use it.

The Right Fire Extinguisher for the Right Fire

Fire extinguishers come in a wide variety of types — each one designed to put out a different kind of fire. Classification systems have been developed to help users know what sort of extinguisher they’re working with. Because the majority of our readers are based stateside, I’ll be focusing on the system used to classify extinguishers in the US.

60px-Fire_type_A Class A — Ordinary solid combustibles like wood, cloth, and paper products. 60px-Fire_type_B Class B – Flammable liquids and gases. 60px-Class_C_fire_icon Class C – Electrical fires. (Do not use water to put out this kind of fire — you could get electrocuted!) 60px-Class_D_fire_icon Class D – Flammable metals. 60px-Class_K_fire_icon Class K – Oils and grease fires. (Never use water on a grease fire — it will cause the flames to explode and spread.)

Most fire extinguishers for homes and public spaces are classified as Class ABC extinguishers, meaning they’re suitable for putting out wood and paper fires, flammable liquid fires, and electrical fires. ABC extinguishers use the dry chemical monoammonium phosphate as the extinguishing agent. You can buy an ABC extinguisher for about $30 -$60 on Amazon or at your nearest hardware store. Get the biggest one you can comfortably handle to maximize its discharge pressure, time, and range.

If you’ve worked in a commercial kitchen, you’ve probably seen Class K extinguishers. The extinguishing agent in the Class K variety is a wet potassium acetate. (Interesting fact: Before the introduction of potassium acetate, sodium bicarbonate powder was the extinguishing agent of choice for grease and oil fires — that's why baking soda can work in a pinch).

Class K extinguishers are used in commercial kitchens because they’re more powerful for dealing with grease fires and the chemicals are less likely to damage the cooking appliance when used. But for small grease fires in a home kitchen, an ABC extinguisher will likely get the job done. An ABC is still going to damage your stove though, so if it’s a very small fire, try to smother it with a pot lid or wool blanket first, before you resort to the extinguisher.

Where to Put a Fire Extinguisher in Your House

Your office or school very likely already has fire extinguishers in place. But it's up to you to get ones for your own home. Some states require that you do so by law, but even if yours doesn't, they're an essential safety item — your second line of fire defense after smoke detectors. A fire extinguisher can keep a small incident from turning into a dangerous emergency.

You should, at minimum, have one ABC extinguisher per level of your house. It's best to have one near each of the rooms where fires are most likely to break out — the garage and especially the kitchen.

Store extinguishers where your kids can't get to them, but they're still easy to access — you don't want to be looking around and digging through a closet when every second is crucial. Don't place them near stoves and heating appliances, or behind curtains and drapes — places where fires may start and quickly spread; if you can't reach the extinguisher because the thing that's on fire is right by it, you're in trouble. The best location for your fire extinguisher is mounted near a door — your escape routes.

Once you've gotten an extinguisher or two to protect your castle, try to check it periodically to see if its pressure is still in the green zone, the seals haven't been broken, the hoses are intact, and it hasn't been damaged by things like dents, leaks, or rust.

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