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Used properly, a portable fire extinguisher can save lives and property by putting out a small, contained fire or containing it sufficiently to allow escape. Fire extinguishers are considered first aid equipment for controlling and putting out small fires before they become large ones. However, they are no substitute for the fire department. Having the proper fire extinguisher, as well as knowing how to use it and how not to use it is important in safeguarding your family and your household.

Fire Extinguishers

The first rule of firefighting is to save lives first, and property second! Get yourself and your family to safety before attempting to extinguish any fire. Only if you can do so without endangering yourself or others should you use firefighting aids on hand. Remember, objects can be replaced, people can’t! Never re-enter a burning building – GET OUT & STAY OUT!

Know when to go. Fire extinguishers are only one element of a home fire response plan, but the primary element is safe escape of all occupants. Every household should have a home fire escape plan and working smoke alarms. Never try to fight a fire if it puts you or others in danger!

Selecting the proper fire extinguisher for your home is as simple as A, B, C. There are three basic classes of fires. Portable fire extinguishers that have been tested and approved will be labeled with the class or classes of fire they are suited to fight. There are two standard labeling systems. New fire extinguisher labeling shows a picture to identify the class of fire they’re capable of extinguishing. A slash through any of the symbols tells you the extinguisher cannot be used on that class of fire.

Fire Extinguisher Labels​
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The older labeling system uses simple icons with an A, B or C designation to show which class or classes of fire it is safe to use a given extinguisher to fight. The class system and the types of fires associated with each class is described in Fire Extinguisher Ratings.

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The newer labeling system uses standard pictorial symbols which show the class or classes of fire for which the extinguisher is suited. The symbols identify the type of fire the extinguisher can be used for. See Fire Extinguisher Ratings for descriptions of the classes, and Fire Extinguisher Types for information on the type of fire extinguisher to use on particular classes of fires.

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Note: A red slash stroked through any of the fire classification symbols means that it is unsafe to use that extinguisher on that class of fire. For example, a water-filled extinguisher would show the symbols for Class B and C fires slashed through, as water should never be used to extinguish a flammable liquid or an electrical fire.

If a symbol is not shown on the extinguisher's label, it simply means the extinguisher was not tested for that class of fire.

Fire Extinguisher Ratings​
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Class A Extinguishers
will put out fires in ordinary combustibles, such as wood and paper. The numerical rating for this class of fire extinguisher refers to the amount of water or dry chemical the fire extinguisher holds and the amount of fire it will extinguish.

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Class B Extinguishers 
should be used on fires involving flammable liquids, such as kitchen grease, gasoline, kerosene, paint, oil, etc. The numerical rating for this class of fire extinguisher states the approximate number of square feet of a flammable liquid fire that a non-expert person can expect to extinguish.


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Class C Extinguishers
are suitable for use on fires involving
electrical equipment or wires. This class of fire extinguishers does not have a numerical rating. The presence of the letter "C" indicates that the extinguishing agent is non-conductive.


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Multi-Class Ratings

Many extinguishers available today can be used on different types of fires and will be labeled with more than one designator, e.g. A-B, B-C, or A-B-C. Make sure that if you have a multi-purpose extinguisher it is properly labeled.

Types of Fire Extinguishers

Dry Chemical

A multi-purpose fire extinguisher
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These extinguishers are usually rated for multi-purpose use. They contain an extinguishing agent and use a compressed, non-flammable gas as a propellant. Dry chemical extinguishers are usually rated for class B and C fires and may be marked multiple purpose for use in A, B, and C fires.

Dry chemical extinguishers put out fires by coating the fuel with a thin layer of fire retardant powder, separating the fuel from the oxygen. The fire retardant powder works by suffocating the fire, inhibiting the release of combustible vapors and interrupting the combustion chain reaction, which makes these extinguishers extremely effective.

ABC fire extinguishers are red in color, and range in size from 5 to 20 pounds.

Dry Chemical extinguishers will have a label indicating they may be used on class A, B, and/or C fires.


Air-Pressurized Water (APW)

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These extinguishers contain water and compressed air and should only be used on Class A (ordinary combustibles) fires.

Water is one of the most commonly used extinguishing agents for type A fires. You can recognize an APW by its large silver container. They are filled about two-thirds of the way with ordinary water, then pressurized with air. In some cases, detergents are added to the water to produce a foam. They stand about 2 to 3 feet and weigh approximately 25 pounds when full.

APWs extinguish fire by cooling the surface of the fuel to remove the "heat" element of the fire triangle.


  • Never use water to extinguish flammable liquid fires (Class B). Water is extremely ineffective at extinguishing this type of fire and will make matters worse by the spreading the fire.

  • Never use water to extinguish an electrical fire (Class C). Water is a good conductor and may lead to electrocution if used to extinguish an electrical fire. Electrical equipment must be unplugged and/or de-energized before using a water extinguisher on an electrical fire.


Extremely Pressurized Gas

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These extinguishers are most effective on Class B and C (liquids and electrical) fires. This type of extinguisher is filled with Carbon Dioxide (CO2) gas, a non-flammable gas under extreme pressure. These extinguishers put out fires by displacing oxygen, or taking away the oxygen element of the fire triangle. Because of its high pressure, when you use this extinguisher pieces of dry ice shoot from the horn, which also has a cooling effect on the fire.

Since the gas disperses quickly, these extinguishers are only effective from 3 to 8 feet. Since the fire could re-ignite, continue to apply the agent even after the fire appears to be out.

You can recognize this type of extinguisher by its hard horn and lack of pressure gauge.

CO2 cylinders are red and range in size from 5 to 100 pounds (or larger).

CO2 extinguishers are designed for Class B and C (flammable liquid and electrical) fires only.


  • CO2 is not recommended for Class A fires because they may continue to smolder and re-ignite after the CO2 dissipates.

  • Never use CO2 extinguishers in a confined space while people are present without proper respiratory protection.

Choosing a Fire Extinguisher
If you do not know what class A, B, and C fires are, please read Fire Extinguisher Ratings, and unless you are familiar with the kinds of fire extinguishers that are available for home use, please read Fire Extinguisher Types.

Before you invest in one or more fire extinguishers, consider where you need them.

  • Where are fires most likely to start?

  • What type of fire would be most likely?

Not all fire extinguishers work on all types of fires.

  • Make sure you select an extinguisher that can be easily handled by all family members.

  • Purchase extinguishers listed by a nationally accepted testing laboratory.

A 5-pound, Multi-Purpose Dry Chemical fire extinguisher (Class 3-A, 10-B, C) is recommended for home use since it can be used on class A, B and C fires, which we may experience in our homes.

The smallest fire extinguisher you should have for your home is a 1.13 kg (2.5 pound) Multi-purpose Dry Chemical fire extinguisher for installation in the kitchen. Smaller fire extinguishers that fit in nicely with your kitchen decor may not be up to the challenge of putting out a typical fire, since they can be completely discharged in as little as 8 seconds.

Cooking oil fires in a pan can be snuffed out without a fire extinguisher by using a tight fitting pot lid and turning off the heat source.

Discharging an extinguisher closer than 1.8 to 2.4 meters (6 to 8 feet) from the pan may spread the fire.

Remember, the size of the extinguisher is directly related to the size of fire that you can extinguish.

Which one?

Fire extinguishers should be installed where the potential fire risk is greatest in the home. A Multi-purpose Dry Chemical fire extinguisher should be installed in the kitchen, laundry, workshop, garage and the top of the basement stairwell in the home. Extinguishers should never be more than 23 meters (75 feet) away from a Class A (ordinary combustibles) hazard, or further than 15 meters (50 feet) away from a Class B (flammable liquids) hazard.

Keep extinguishers in a visible location, high on a wall out of the reach of children, near an exit and away from heat sources. If exposed to heat, the fire extinguisher’s contents may become less effective or cause the extinguisher to lose its charge more quickly. The best location in most situations is just inside a door or entrance, out of the reach of children. Use mounting brackets, if provided with the fire extinguisher. Avoid locating an extinguisher right next to where a fire could develop. Smoke, heat or flames from a fire may prevent you from reaching the extinguisher.

Only adults should handle and use fire extinguishers. Be sure that everyone in the family knows where they are located and how to use them.


Follow the manufacturer's instructions for care and maintenance.

Rechargeable models must be serviced and recharged after every use.

A partially discharged fire extinguisher is always considered an empty one. Have it refilled or replaced immediately.

Disposable fire extinguishers can only be used once and must be replaced after use.

Most fire equipment service companies will not recharge a fire extinguisher with a plastic head assembly, since they find they aren't reliable in holding a charge.

Check with your local fire equipment service company in the Yellow Pages under "Fire Extinguishers."

Monthly Maintenance Checks:

  • Check to ensure that nothing is blocking immediate access to your fire extinguisher. Remove any obstructions.

  • Check to ensure your extinguisher is at the recommended operating pressure, indicated by the needle in the green zone on extinguishers equipped with a gauge. Have the extinguisher recharged if the needle is not in the green zone of the gauge.

  • Check the hose or nozzle for cracks, tears or blockage by debris. If damage is found, have the extinguisher repaired by a qualified service technician or replaced.

  • Check the pin and tamper seal to ensure they are intact. If the tamper seal is broken or the pin is missing, have the extinguisher serviced by a qualified service technician.

  • Check to ensure the handle or lever is undamaged. If the handle or lever is wobbly or broken, have the extinguisher inspected and repaired by a qualified service technician.

  • Check the extinguisher for dents, leaks, rust, chemical deposits and/or other signs of abuse or wear. If damage is found, have the extinguisher repaired by a qualified service technician or replaced.

  • Remove the extinguisher from its mounting bracket, turn the extinguisher upside down and hit the bottom sharply with your hand, then shake it well. This will prevent the dry chemical powder from settling or packing down in the cylinder, making it ineffective.

  • Note the date of the monthly inspection on the inspection tag attached to your fire extinguisher.

Things to Consider—
Quick Tips
If you discover a fire... RACE!

RESCUE anyone in immediate danger of the fire, if you can do so safely.

ALERT others and emergency services to the fire. Activate the building's fire alarm, if equipped. Yell "Fire" to warn occupants to evacuate. Call 911 to alert the fire department; always call from a safe location away from the fire.

CONTAIN the spread of fire by closing windows and doors as you evacuate the area and building.

EVACUATE to a safe place outside; preferably a pre-arranged meeting place.

Using your portable fire extinguisher

It's easy to remember how to use a fire extinguisher if you can remember the acronym PASS, which stands for Pull, Aim, Squeeze, and Sweep. Most portable fire extinguishers work according to these directions, but some do not. Read and follow the directions on your extinguisher. Always call the fire department (911) immediately before attempting to extinguish a fire!

Before fighting a small fire...

DO NOT attempt to fight a small, contained fire unless you:

  • Everyone is evacuated from the fire area

  • 911 - Fire Department has been called

  • The fire is small and not spreading

  • You've defined a clear exit - you can escape safely if necessary

  • Fire extinguisher is the right type and size for the fire

  • Fire extinguisher is fully charged and operational

  • You know how to use the extinguisher

  • You know how to abandon fighting the fire if your safety is endangered

Never fight a fire if...

Fires can be extremely dangerous and you should always be certain that you would not endanger yourself or others when attempting to put out a fire.


Never fight a fire if:

  • You don't know what's burning

  • The fire appears to be too large to handle with one extinguisher

  • The fire is spreading rapidly beyond the spot where it started

  • You don't have an adequate or appropriate fire extinguisher

  • You might inhale toxic smoke

  • Your instincts tell you not to

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