Fire extinguishers are one of the most crucial and reliable tools available to respond to emergency situations and to prevent the spread of fires. Fortunately, extinguishers are also lightweight and simple enough that anyone, with proper training, can learn to use them effectively in the event of a fire. The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requires that every employer provide portable fire extinguishers and mount and locate them in the workplace so that they are readily accessible to employees. It is OSHA’s position that the decision to use fire extinguishers may not be left up to the employees but must be spelled out in an emergency action plan. In order to help ensure the workplace is protected from contingencies, it is necessary that employees be familiarized with the emergency action plan and, where applicable, receive sufficient training on when and how to safely use fire extinguishers according to OSHA standards.
The emergency action plan may designate certain employees to be the only ones authorized to use the fire extinguishers in response to a fire. Such plans would require the employer to provide the designated firefighting employees with fire extinguisher training and, meanwhile, would require all other employees to evacuate upon activation of the fire alarm. Alternately, the emergency action plan may permit any and all employees to use fire extinguishers to fight flames. In that case, the employer must provide an educational program to familiarize all workers with the general principles of fire extinguisher use. Hands-on training should include, at a minimum, actual discharge of the devices appropriate for the type of fires expected. For convenience and consistency, fire extinguisher education training should be provided in tandem with demonstrations of the workplace’s other fire safety resources, such as fire alarm boxes, standpipe hoses and sprinkler systems.
General procedure in response to a fire should involve sounding the alarm, identifying a safe evacuation path, selecting the correct type of fire extinguisher, discharging the tool within its effective range using the P.A.S.S. technique, backing away from an extinguished fire in case it flares up again, and evacuating immediately if the extinguisher is empty and the fire is not out or if the fire progresses beyond the incipient stage. The P.A.S.S. (Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep) technique is the standard procedure for using a fire extinguisher to put out a small blaze, which employees should memorize. After quickly checking the pressure gauge to make sure the extinguisher is charged (arrow will be in the green section), one should pull the pin straight out and break the tamper seal; aim low, pointing the nozzle at the fire’s base; squeeze the handle to release the extinguishing agent; and sweep from side to side at the base of the fire. Hold the nozzle with your strong hand and carry the extinguisher with your other hand. Employers should emphasize to their employees never to touch the extinguisher’s plastic discharge horn, as it gets very cold and may damage the skin.
Employers should train their employees in the two main uses of fire extinguishers: 1) to extinguish small or incipient stage, and 2) to protect evacuation routes that may be blocked by flames or by the resultant smoke or smoldering materials. A fire is considered to be beyond the incipient stage when the use of protective clothing (like fire retardant coveralls or work gloves) or breathing apparatus (like full face respirator masks) is required to approach it and it cannot typically be controlled by a fire extinguisher or small hose alone. During a fire drill or mock-evacuation, a designated individual may lead the exit procession with fire extinguisher in hand as he or she would need to do in the case of an actual fire emergency wherein he or she would need to protect the evacuation route.
It is essential to match your fire extinguisher to the type of fire you are anticipating. Not all models will be effective against all types of fires. For instance, Class A fire extinguishers should be kept handy against ordinary combustible materials such as wood, cloth, or paper. Class AB extinguishers are effective against fires caused by those same materials plus flammable liquids. Class BC extinguishers also work for electrical fires. Class ABC extinguishers are multipurpose and are particularly useful to have on hand as a go-to extinguisher. Class K are effective against kitchen fires that involve combustible cooking material such as vegetable oils or fats. Train employees to be aware of their surroundings: are they in an office surrounded by paper or an industrial worksite containing flammable liquids? If your workplace encompasses the likelihood of different types of fires requiring different fire extinguishers, employees should undergo training to identify the different classes of fire and the appropriate fire extinguisher to use in response. A quick identification of the right extinguisher can prevent an incipient spark from turning into a raging blaze.
In addition to training employees about the physical, mechanical use of fire extinguishers, employers should educate employees about the hazards involved with incipient stage firefighting. A majority of the time, employees will use fire extinguishers to put out a blaze that has only just begun to ignite, thus preventing it from spreading and becoming truly destructive and unmanageable. However, even at such an early, limited stage, a fire can still pose threats. These include up to third-degree burns and risks associated with carbon-monoxide inhalation, especially for those with asthma or bronchial conditions, which render them particularly susceptible. Because of these and other risks, employers should avoid using live blazes during fire extinguisher demonstrations. Employers should also train employees to maintain a safe distance when attempting to extinguish fires, and to evacuate immediately if they feel the fire is growing beyond their control.