What You Must Know About Fire Extinguishers

History and Needs for Extinguishers

Portable fire extinguishers have been around and used since before the ancient Romans laid siege to enemy cities. The first “extinguishers” probably were animal skins, filled with water, and could be carried to the source of the fire. The shape of the skin container would allow for some “squeezing” and forcing a stream that could be somewhat directed at the base of the fire. Some two thousand years later, portable fire extinguishers are still being used… and are still needed. The need is even greater now, as the hazards (“fire-speak” for what might ignite and burn.) are more plentiful and are much different than the wood, cloth, straw, pitch and animal fats that fueled the fires of the past.

My intent, here, is to provide some of the answers as to what is needed for fire safety. The opportunity for great customer support, extinguisher service, and prices that are very affordable for the protection received, is best obtained through a recognized local fire equipment distributor.

Through my commitment to fire safety, my years of experience and expertise, I have established a personal and business relationship with many fire equipment distributors that will last a lifetime! If you are in business, operate a farm, are a home owner, own a boat or for any other reason have a requirement for fire extinguishers, I would suggest that you establish a good working relationship with your trusted, local fire equipment distributor.

My many years of experience with face to face contacts in the fire equipment business has given me insights to perceptions held by many fire officials, distributors, and end users. It may not be a surprise, but some of these perceptions that are held may be either true or false. Most of the time there are misunderstandings in what the “rules” are. The guideline or source of regulation or rule that is used as a basis to form the perception or an understanding of a regulation that is in some cases, outdated or just plain misinterpreted. As always, the final ruling is what is perceived and enforced by the AHJ… The Authority Having Jurisdiction. Always defer to your local fire department inspector and if you feel it necessary, and ask for the ruling or decision in writing.

As you are an interested party in fire safety equipment and, in particular, fire extinguishers, you have a need to know what happens when a product is discontinued, regulations change, or the manufacturer closes their doors and support for a fire protection product no longer exists. Again, this is where your local fire equipment distributor provides the answers and the services needed.

Your purchase of a fire extinguisher is more than paying for “just a product.” You need to know the proper use, how to select the right size and the type for the hazard to be protected. You also need to know where to locate the extinguisher relative to the hazard.

These selections of sizes and types, as well as quantities and locations… And, equally as important, is the information that is offered by your distributor and the Fire Equipment Manufacturers Association (FEMA) in partnership with the National Association of Fire Equipment Distributors (NAFED). Also the guidelines used for Portable Fire Extinguishers are published and revised every three years by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and is identified as NFPA 10. Note that these standards have been published and revised since first being adopted in 1921.

Extinguisher Types Required

Of course, in the event of a fire, the first thing you do is call the fire department and be sure everyone is safe. If the fire is small and contained a portable fire extinguisher can be the first defense. Statistics will show that “94 percent of the time a portable fire extinguisher is used, it puts out the fire-typically within the initial two minutes.” Additionally, portable extinguishers are effective by putting out fires in an early stage significantly minimizing deaths, injuries, and property damage.

Properly maintained portable fire extinguishers are safe to use, quick and easy to operate, and in commercial facilities, the cost is less than one cent per square foot.

Hazards today are even “classified.” Fire extinguishers are classified by the type of fire they will extinguish. The types of fires are:

TYPE A: Fires in ordinary combustible materials, such as wood, cloth, paper, rubber, and many plastics.

TYPE B: Fires in flammable liquids, combustible liquids, petroleum greases, tars, oils, oil-based paints, solvents, lacquers, alcohols, and flammable gases.

TYPE C: Fires that involve energized electrical equipment where the electrical nonconductivity of the extinguishing media is of importance.

TYPE “D” is for combustible metals, such as magnesium, typically found in specialized industrial manufacturing settings.

TYPE “K” Is used to extinguish fires in or on commercial and institutional cooking appliances that use combustible cooking media (vegetable or animal oils and fats) such as a fryer in your local fast food restaurant. Also used for griddles, ranges and other appliances that produce vapors, grease, and flammable oils when cooking.

Now that we know what the types of fires are, we can select the appropriate extinguisher to offer the protection desired.


Today animal skins have been replaced by metal containers called cylinders. The “squeezing” to force the contents out in a stream that can be directed at the base of the fire is now done by the pressure of an inert gas within the cylinder. The “agent” used for extinguishment can be water for a certain class of hazard, Type A (Yes, water is still a good selection for a Type A fire only, but never on a grease, oil, or electrical fire.). Another class of hazard, Type B, would best be extinguished by a special formulation of sodium bicarbonate (Yes, the kitchen kind, but with a siliconization treatment to prevent “caking” and moisture absorption allowing a free flow of agent when needed.). There are also monoammonium phosphates, potassium bicarbonates and potassium chlorides all formulated (again, with a treatment to prevent “caking” and moisture absorption allowing a free flow of agent when needed.) to meet certain effective ratings when applied on specific hazards at specific rates. The fire extinguisher industry has come up with an extinguisher that is rated, or classified, as effective on fires designated as “A”, “B”, and “C”.

As you can see here, the reason that the vast majority of fire extinguishers placed in use are classed as “ABC”. This means that you can use the single type of extinguisher, the “ABC” for nearly any fire emergency.

If you have any questions about emergency fire protection, check with your local fire professionals.

You should look for an extinguisher manufacturer that is ISO 9001 Certified to assure quality and is a full line manufacturer of UL® listed (in the USA) portable and wheeled fire extinguishers, dry chemical powders, and clean agent extinguishers.

Most US companies produce dry chemical monoamonium phosphate (ABC), potassium bicarbonate (PK or Purple K), and sodium bicarbonate (STANDARD) using their own proprietary chemical mills. CO2 and other clean agent extinguishers use chemicals produced by outside vendors while still complying with the rigid Underwriters Laboratory standards of the units in production.

Typical US fire extinguishers are manufactured only utilizing numerous recognized and approved chemicals including ABC, BC, PK, CO2, and the clean agent Halotron® I or other approved clean agents. There are also UL® listed wheeled fire extinguishers that are larger capacity for special applications and much larger hazards.

Are You In Compliance?

If you are an employer or an occupant… are you In Compliance?

I’m always amazed by the attitude of persons that have the responsibility for purchasing products that are for protection of lives and property (even their own!). In many cases, they just won’t spend the little money to provide the minimum protection that every statistic would prove they need.

Based on these same statistics, and knowing that many would not invest in the fire safety products, the government has mandated the protection that they didn’t want to buy in the first place.

Now that fire protection is mandated, there are specific regulations (laws) that must be enforced. Enforcement in the fire protection industry wears many hats. Most in the business think that the local AHJ has the final say on local enforcement. This might be true in most cases, but the ultimate authority is OSHA! When our US federal government passes a law that is as far reaching as OSHA, we all need to be aware of what the actual regulations are. In an industry, a home, or business that must use safety, we should know what engine drives the needs, or in this case, requirements, and what would happen if there was a fire and the requirements were not met.

Spending Your Money

What to look for when spending money for extinguishers:

Hand Portable Extinguishers:

Find a complete line of quality, industrial grade, hand portable units that have no plastic parts. Ask if the siphon tubes are metal. Make sure all are supplied with gages and are rechargeable. They must have epoxy finishes that are tested to withstand a minimum 240 hours of salt spray for a long service life. Make sure they are available in ABC, BC, and PK dry chemical. If needed ask for Class D in sodium chloride dry powder. If you have a commercial or institutional kitchen, you will need Wet chemical Class K extinguishers.

CO2 units and clean agent units may also be needed depending upon your hazards and the type of protection needed. Electronics, computers, and switchgear typically need CO2 or another clean agent.

Dry chemical wheeled units typically range from 50 lbs. up to 350 lbs. They are available in many combinations that include stored pressure, pressure transfer, and regulated pressure. Semi-pneumatic wheels, steel wheels, and rubber treads on steel wheels are available. Wheeled Halotron I clean agent units are available in 65 and 150 lb. sizes. CO2 Wheeled units are usually available in two sizes, 50 and 100 lb.