Any fire, no matter how small, has the potential to get out of hand depending on how it is managed. Fire extinguishers are the first line of defence against small fires to prevent them from spreading too far and damaging property or injuring people. Portable fire extinguishers can save lives if used properly, but they can increase your vulnerability and put you and others in danger if used improperly. Read on to learn safety tips at different stages of fighting a fire.
General safety tips
It is important for everyone in a building to learn how to use an extinguisher before there's need for it. There won't be time to read instructions once a fire ensues. Conduct regular fire drills at home or in the office to ensure that everyone is on the same page. It also helps to know some burn treatment and resuscitation first aid tips in case there are casualties from the fire.
Fire extinguishers should be located in a known and reachable point according to safety regulations. Keep them in working order by inspecting regularly for leaks and other damage. Check the pressure gauge to ensure it is within allowed limits (green zone).
Step 1: Assess the fire
Fire extinguishers should only be used in the early stages of a fire that has little potential to spread. Remember that even small fires can double or triple in size in just minutes depending on the environment and cause. If you have a fire spreading faster than you can control, find an exit and wait for the fire department.
Try to establish what started the fire in order to know which extinguisher to use. There are specific extinguishers indicated for different fires. Using the wrong extinguisher can actually be fatal, as it can cause release of toxic fumes or an explosion. If you cannot determine the cause, it's best to leave the building and wait for professional firefighters.
Step 2: Fighting the fire
Ensure you have an unobstructed means of escape in case you're not able to contain the fire. The best way is to keep the exit to your back as you target the fire. In addition, have a person who can back you up/call for help in case of any mishap. Begin a few feet away from the fire, only moving closer as the fire becomes smaller. Do not haphazardly spray the fire extinguisher at the flames. Try to identify the base of the fire and direct the nozzle there. Even after the flames have disappeared, watch the fire site to ensure that the fire doesn't re-ignite.
When not to use fire extinguishers
You should never use a fire extinguisher:
- on a rapid-spreading fire, as you risk getting trapped by the fire
- on a fire whose source you don't know – even multipurpose extinguishers can be dangerous if used on the wrong type of fire
- if it's the wrong type – any fire extinguisher is NOT better than no fire extinguisher
- if the fire produces too much smoke – avoid the threat of poisoning carbon monoxide or other toxic fumes by exiting and waiting for properly-clad professionals to intervene