Extinguishers Have Limits

Used properly, a portable fire extinguisher can save lives and property by putting out a small fire or containing it until the fire department arrives. Portable fire 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
  • The extinguisher must be the right type, within easy reach, and in working order, fully charged.
  • The operator must have a clear escape route that will not be blocked by fire.
  • The extinguisher must be large enough to put out the fire. Most portable extinguishers discharge completely in as few as 8 to 10 seconds.
  • Extinguishers should never be used by children.
Selecting Your Extinguisher

There are three basic classes of fires. All fire extinguishers are labeled using standard symbols for the classes of fire they can put out. A 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 a 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 including wiring, fuse boxes, circuit breakers, machinery and appliances.

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

An extinguisher used too close to a cooking grease fire could spread the grease fire outside of the frying area rather than putting it out.

Extinguisher Sizes

Portable fire 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 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.

Installation and Maintenance

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

Extinguishers require routine care. Read your operator’s manual to learn how to inspect your extinguisher. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for maintenance.

Rechargeable models must be serviced after every use. Disposable fire extinguishers can be used only once and must be replaced after use.

Remember the PASS – word

Keep your back to an unobstructed exit and stand six to eight feet away from the fire. Follow the four-step Pull, Aim, Squeeze, and Sweep (PASS) procedure.
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 extinguisher agent. Releasing the lever will stop the discharge (Some 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. If the fire re-ignites, repeat the process.

Always be sure the fire department inspects the fire site, even if you think you’ve extinguished the fire.