A home portable fire extinguisher can save lives and property by putting out a small fire or containing it until the fire department arrives. They aren't, however, designed to fight large or spreading fires and they aren't for everyone. Even against small fires, you should use them only if:

  • You are an adult.
  • You know how to operate the extinguisher
  • The extinguisher is in easy reach and in working order
  • You have a clear escape route that won't be blocked by fire.
  • The extinguisher matches the type of fire you're fighting.
  • The extinguisher is large enough to put out the fire.

Read the Label

There are three basic types of fires. All fire extinguishers are labeled with standard symbols, letters, or both for the classes of fires they can put out.

Class A
Ordinary combustibles such as wood, cloth, and paper. Extinguishers labeled for only Class A fires contain water and are unsuitable for use on grease or electrical fires.
Class B
Flammable liquids such as gasoline, oil, and oil-based paint.
Class C
Energized electrical equipment - including wiring, fuse boxes, circuit breakers, machinery, and appliances.

Multipurpose fire extinguishers, labeled ABC, may be used on all three classes of fire.

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 only that the extinguisher has not been tested for that class of fire. If you are using the wrong type of extinguisher, you can endanger yourself and even make the fire worse.

Extinguisher Size

Portable extinguishers are rated for the size of fire they can handle. This rating is also on the label - for example, 2A:10B:C. The larger the numbers, the larger the fire that 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. (Note: Many portable extinguishers discharge completely in as few as 8-10 seconds, which may not be enough to put out the fire.)

Installation and Maintenance

Install extinguishers in plain view, above the reach of children, near an escape route, and away from stoves and heating appliances.

Take care of your extinguishers. Read your operator's manual, learn how to inspect your extinguisher, and follow the manufacturer's instructions for maintenance.

Rechargeable extinguishers 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.

Fighting Small Fires: PASS

Only fight a fire if you feel confident to continue. Keep your back to an unobstructed exit and begin by standing 6-8 feet away from the fire.
Follow the four-step PASS procedure - Pull, Aim, Squeeze, and Sweep.

PULL the pin
This unlocks the operating lever and allows you to discharge the extinguisher. Some extinguishers may have other lever-release mechanisms.
AIM low
Point the extinguisher nozzle (or hose) at the base of the fire.
SQUEEZE the lever above the handle
This discharges the extinguishing agent. Releasing the lever will stop the discharge. (Some extinguishers 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. If the fire reignites, repeat the process.