Used properly, a portable fire extinguisher can save lives and property by putting out or containing a small fire until the fire department arrives.

Portable extinguishers for home use, however, are not designed to fight large or spreading fires. Even against small fires, they are useful only under certain conditions.

  • The operator must know how to use the extinguisher. There is no time to read directions during an emergency!
  • The extinguisher must be within easy reach, in working order, and fully charged.
  • The operator must have a clear escape route that will not be blocked by fire.
  • The extinguisher must match the type of fire being fought.  Extinguishers that contain water are unsuitable for use on grease or electrical fires.
  • The extinguisher must be large enough to put out the fire.  Many portable extinguishers discharge completely in as few as 8 to 10 seconds.



Fire extinguishers are tested by independent laboratories and labeled for the type and size of fire they can extinguish. Use these labels as a guide to purchase the kind of extinguisher that suits your needs.

There are three basic classes of fires. All fire extinguishers are labeled using standard symbols for the classes of fires they can put out. A red slash through any of the symbols tells you the extinguisher cannot be used on that class of fire. A missing symbol tells you that the extinguisher has not been tested for that given class of fire.

  • CLASS A: Ordinary combustibles such as wood, cloth, and paper.
  • CLASS B: Flammable liquids such as gasoline, oil, and oil-based paint.
  • CLASS C: Energized electrical equipment such as wiring, fuse boxes, circuit breakers, and appliances.

The extinguisher must be appropriate for the type of fire being fought.  If you use the wrong extinguisher, you can endanger yourself and make the fire worse.  Multipurpose fire extinguishers marked ABC may be used on all classes of fires.

Remember, in some cases it may be dangerous to use any type of extinguisher.  For instance, pressurized extinguishing agent could spread a grease fire rather than put it out.

Portable extinguishers are also rated for the size of fire they can handle.  This rating will appear on the label- for example, 2A:10B:C.  The larger the numbers, the larger the fire the extinguisher can put out, but higher-rated models are often heavier.  Make sure you can hold and operate an extinguisher before you buy it.


Fire extinguishers should be installed in plain view, above the reach of small children, near an escape route, and away from stoves and heating appliances.

Extinguishers require routine care.  Read the operator's manual to learn how to inspect your extinguisher.  Follow manufacturer's instructions on maintenance.

Rechargeable models must be serviced after every use.  Service companies are listed in the Yellow Pages under "Fire Extinguishers".  Disposable fire extinguishers can be used only once and must be replaced after use.

Keep your back to an unobstructed exit and stand six to eight feet away from the fire.  Follow the four-step PASS procedure.
PULL the pin:  This unlocks the operating lever and allows you to discharge the extinguisher.  Some extinguishers may have different types of lever-release mechanisms.
AIM low:  Point the extinguisher nozzle or hose at the base of the fire.
SQUEEZE the lever above the handle to discharge the extinguishing agent.  Releasing the lever will stop the discharge.  Some smaller extinguishers may have a button instead of a lever.
SWEEP from side to side.  Moving carefully toward the fire, keep the extinguisher aimed at the base of the fire and sweep back and forth until the flames appear to be out.  Watch the fire area and be prepared to repeat the process if the fire re-ignites.
If the fire will not go out, leave the area immediately!
Before you begin to fight a fire...
  • Rescue any people in immediate danger from the fire.
  • Notify the fire department, no matter how small the fire is.
  • Make sure everyone has left or is leaving the area.
  • Find out what is burning and make sure your extinguisher is right for the fire.
  • Make sure the fire is confined to a small area and is not spreading.
  • Be sure you have an unobstructed escape route to your back to which the fire will not spread.
  • Be sure you have read the instructions beforehand and know how to properly use the fire extinguisher.
It is dangerous to fight a fire under any other circumstances. Instead, leave immediately, close off the area, and wait for the fire department to arrive.

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