You’re frying up bacon in your kitchen on a Saturday morning when the grease starts to smoke and flames shoot out and spill onto the stovetop. Quick: What do you do?
- You can’t suffocate the fire by sliding the lid onto the pan, which normally would be your best option, because the flames have spread.
- You certainly can’t throw water into the pan, because that could cause a grease fire to explode into a fireball,
- You definitely can’t toss the pan out the back door, because you could get burned or light your home on fire.
But if you have the right type of fire extinguisher, it’s in working order and you know how to use it, you might be able to safely squelch the fire in seconds.
Being prepared for such a scenario could help prevent major damage to your home and keep you and your family safe. In fact, 93 percent of fire deaths and 95 percent of fire-related property damage occur when a fire isn’t put out in the early stages, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)’s National Fire Incident Reporting System.
Fire extinguishers can and do stop fires before they grow, says Mike O’Brian, a fire chief with the Brighton Area Fire Authority, Brighton, Mich., and the chair of the Fire and Life Safety Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Oftentimes, in fact, O’Brian will walk into a home saved by a homeowner and be able to smell or taste the chemical powder from the fire extinguisher.
“We see it all the time,” he says.
The ABCs of Fire Extinguishers
All fire extinguishers are not created equal, so make sure you have the right one(s) to fight the type(s) of flames you might face. When shopping for a fire extinguisher, you’ll find three main types:
- Type A — works on a fire caused by combustible materials such as cardboard, paper or trash
- Type B — works on a fire caused by flammable liquids such as bacon grease, gasoline, kerosene or oil
- Type C — works on electrical fires such as those caused by faulty wiring, frayed appliance cords, lamps and space heaters
It’s difficult to predict what kind of a fire might happen in your home, so it’s best to get a combo A-B-C extinguisher, O’Brian says.
It’s also smart to buy at least two extinguishers for your home, hanging one in the kitchen and one near an exit, possibly between the home and the garage, he says.
Fire Extinguisher Buying Tips
Fire extinguishers can be purchased at home improvement or hardware stores. Look for one that’s labeled UL listed, O’Brian says—this means that Underwriters Laboratories (UL), an independent testing company, found that the samples of the fire extinguisher tested met their safety standards. “As a fire chief, those give me a sense of security,” he says.
Before you buy, check to make sure that the product was manufactured in the past year, and that the pressure indicator is full, Consumer Reports recommends.
Finally, consider size. You want an extinguisher that’s big enough to put out a fire, but not so heavy that it’s difficult to operate, according to the NFPA. A typical home extinguisher might be about 13 inches tall and weigh 4 or 5 pounds, he says. Some companies make extinguishers that are about the size of an aerosol can, but those are too small to be effective, O’Brian says—”though, they’re better than nothing.”
Get Schooled in Putting Out a Fire
A fire extinguisher is a good safety tool, but it’s important to know when—and when not—to use yours, says Judy Comoletti, division manager for Public Education at the NFPA. “In general, firefighting is best left to the fire department,” she says.
However, extinguishers can be used for small, contained fires, such as one in a trash can or a pan, where the room isn’t filled with smoke, according to the NFPA. Only pick up the extinguisher after everyone else is out of the house and firefighters are on their way, the NFPA advises.
To properly put out a fire, remember the acronym P-A-S-S, O’Brian says:
- Pull out the pin, holding the fire extinguisher with the nozzle pointing away from you.
- Aim the fire extinguisher at the base of the flames.
- Squeeze the lever on the handle “slowly and evenly.”
- Sweep the nozzle back and forth to put out the flames.
In addition to knowing how and when to use an extinguisher, you should know when not to use one. Toxic smoke from a fire can cause confusion and disorientation and can kill a person in as little as 30 seconds, O’Brian says.
“If the fire is growing quickly or you’re choking on smoke, you need to get out,” he says.
Keep Your Equipment in Working Order
Once you have a fire extinguisher and you know how to use it, make sure to add monthly checks to your regular household maintenance schedule.
Every 30 days or so, do a visual inspection of your extinguisher, O’Brian recommends. Make sure the gauge shows it’s full, there’s no visual damage to the cylinder, it’s not leaking and the nozzle isn’t clogged.
Take the extinguisher off the mount to make sure you can easily remove it, and gently turn it over a few times to keep the powder inside from caking. “It’s really simple—not a vigorous shaking,” O’Brian says.
These monthly inspections will also help you to remember where your fire extinguisher is. Many people, when they don’t use their extinguisher, tend to lose track of it, O’Brian says, noting that he sometimes shows up at fires and finds that the homeowner has pulled out a bunch of cleaning supplies looking for the extinguisher under the sink.
Most extinguishers sold for home use are good for only one use. If you’re lucky and you never have to use your extinguisher, you’ll still have to replace it at some point. Check your user’s manual, but most last about a decade, the same lifespan as a smoke alarm, O’Brian says.
“Every 10 years, replace your smoke alarms, replace your fire extinguisher and be done,” he says.
Are you prepared for a home fire. Take these quizzes to find out.