October is National Fire Prevention Month. While prevention is the ultimate goal, accidents do happen and fires do occur. In fact, 2013 saw nearly 370,000 U.S. home fires, resulting in 2,755 civilian deaths and $6.8 billion in property damage. Until or unless someone finds a way to prevent home fires altogether, we must focus on fire suppression in addition to fire prevention.  The ability to prevent a small fire from getting larger or extinguish a fire altogether can mean the difference between a mishap involving some cleanup and a serious threat to life and property.
There are many practices that can aid us in fire prevention, such as regular service of heating systems, proper storage of flammable liquids, and safe operation of fireplaces and cooking equipment, just to name a few.  In the case of fire suppression, options are limited.
1. Local fire department. We should all be very grateful for local firelighters.  Unfortunately, they are often responding to fires that have grown beyond their confined, beginning stages.
2. Residential fire sprinkler systems. As building codes develop, you may see these much more commonly, especially in new construction.  While an excellent life and property saving system, they will often actuate only once a fire has grown to produce enough heat to trigger a detection device.
3. Portable fire extinguisher. Many of us have these humble devices in our homes already.  But what do we really know about them?  Is simply having one enough to put a fire out, should the situation arise?  We’ll cover the basics on portable extinguishers and review some tips that might better prepare us to combat a residential fire.
Fire extinguisher use—Not a magic wand

While they can be amazingly effective, fire extinguishers have limitations. They are designed as a first line of defense to combat fires in their beginning (aka incipient) stages. That means small. In addition to my own experiences, I have heard many success stories through my years in business. “This little thing saved my house” or “everyone downstairs might have been trapped had I not had this extinguisher and been able to get the fire out”. Still, “small” is the keyword. Think wastebasket, stovetop or barbecue grill fire—NOT barn, garage or entire second floor.
What to have in a fire extinguisher
While multi-family structures may be subject to separate commercial codes, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers guidelines for equipping one- and two-family dwellings. Each floor level of the home should be outfitted with at least one extinguisher with a rating of 2-A:10-BC or higher. That means not the little 2½-pound model, but a multi-purpose dry chemical (ABC) extinguisher with a 5-pound capacity or greater. In addition, a similar extinguisher should be provided to protect an attached or detached garage. However, it is worth considering a larger extinguisher for garages or workshops where vehicles, yard machines or flammable liquids are stored. ABC-type extinguishers are versatile, highly effective and economical. If there is one drawback, it is that the extinguishing agent is a powder and discharge can result in quite a mess. Other extinguishing agents that are cleaner are available, but are generally more costly and less widely effective.
Where to get a fire extinguisher
Most homeowners would likely shop for extinguishers with one of two main sources—your local fire equipment distributor or the big box retailers. As with most products, the big retailer might offer a wider variety and often the lowest priced brands, whereas the dealer might carry a premium brand and offer more in the way of experience and product knowledge. In general, the lowest priced extinguishers tend to be small, disposable and constructed using plastic components. Spending a little more will often get you a properly sized, rechargeable and more durable unit, of all-metal construction.  The latter tend to be the most rugged and reliable. One manufacturer recently recalled 4.6 million defective extinguishers and they are of the disposable, plastic valve variety.
How to store the fire extinguisher
If you ever find yourself needing to use a fire extinguisher, you can bet you’ll be in a hurry to do so. Therefore, it is critical to store your extinguishers in a manner that will minimize any sort of delay in their deployment.  So first of all (and for at least a couple of reasons), take it out of the box it came in.  Secondly, don’t hide it. Since we want to keep our homes looking nice and fire extinguishers may not fit in with the décor, folks often tend to stash their extinguishers where they are out of sight (under the kitchen sink, in a closet, on the floor in the corner of the garage). Point is, if you can’t find it, you can’t use it. Wherever you decide to keep yours, make sure it’s designated as “the fire extinguisher spot”—a place where it won’t be forgotten, obstructed from view or buried under clutter. Each new extinguisher comes with a mounting bracket. If at all possible, use it. Hanging an extinguisher on its bracket will help to keep it unobstructed and in its designated spot.
How to ensure the extinguisher will work
In general, fire extinguishers are quite reliable. Several factors can work for, or against, that reliability, such as quality of the model, environment where they are stored, and frequency of inspection and maintenance. Getting yourself a good quality extinguisher, storing it in a spot where it will be kept free from damage, inspecting it frequently and having it maintained regularly will all aid in equipment reliability. Two things are sure to jeopardize proper function: pressure loss and mechanical damage.  Extinguishers are pressurized with a compressed gas, which allows the contents to be expelled very simply. Pressure loss, whether by leakage or discharge, will normally be evident by indication in the pressure gauge. A gauge reading low or empty will mean recharge (for rechargeable units) or replacement (for disposables). If owners are inspecting extinguishers frequently (monthly is the recommendation), low pressure situations can be addressed and equipment restored to a ready condition. Unlike low pressure indicated on the gauge, mechanical damage can be more difficult to spot. That’s where professional maintenance comes in. At intervals not exceeding one year, your extinguishers should be in the hands of your local professional fire equipment distributor. They will conduct a thorough maintenance, designed to uncover any conditions that might prevent the equipment from functioning properly, and advise of any internal maintenance or testing requirements.  It is essential to remember that a fire extinguisher discharge is a “one and done” occurrence. A discharge of even a small portion of the extinguisher’s contents will almost always result in complete pressure loss, so never “test” it in an attempt to make sure it is working.
How to use your extinguisher effectively
Finally, knowing how to use an extinguisher is as important as anything else we’ve covered.  Again, if you find yourself wanting to use an extinguisher, you’ll probably be in a hurry. Experts say a fire can double in size every 30 seconds to a minute, so you won’t want to stop and read directions. Learn the procedure ahead of time and review it often. Share your knowledge with everyone in your household who you might expect or want to use an extinguisher. Some of us have had training at work and nothing beats hands-on experience, but the next best thing available to all might be a visit to  There, you will find valuable fire extinguisher info, including proper use with the P-A-S-S (Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep) technique.  Just as important as knowing how to use an extinguisher is knowing when NOT to attempt to use it. Training will tell you that you are to stand back 6 to 10 feet from the burning material. If, from that position, you can’t see, breathe or stand the heat, you should evacuate rather than try to use an extinguisher. Don’t put yourself in a life-threatening situation.
We tell all of our customers at Albany Fire Extinguisher ( when we send them off with an extinguisher, that “we hope you never need to use them,” but should the situation arise, we hope this information has you better prepared to react.


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