How To Use a Fire Extinguisher

A fire extinguisher is only as good as the person using it. Learn how to use a fire extinguisher before you're faced with a fire.

Portable fire extinguishers successfully put out more than 80 percent of home fires before they get out of hand. But it’s vital to keep the right extinguisher in your home and know how to use it before there’s an emergency.

“There is a saying, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ and I think this holds true for fires,” says Brian O’Connor, technical services engineer with the National Fire Prevention Association.

Preventing fires from occurring in the first place, through fire safe practices, is of utmost importance. But in the event a fire does occur, fire extinguishers, in the hands of a trained person, can be great for putting out small incipient fires.”

Types of Fire Extinguishers

There are five classes of fire extinguishers. Though they tackle different sources of fire, each operates the same way. The type you need depends on what might catch fire in the room where you keep it, whether it’s the kitchen, workshop or bedroom.

  • Class A: Fires in ordinary combustibles like wood, paper or cloth.
  • Class B: Flammable liquids like grease, gasoline, oil and some paints.
  • Class C: Energized electrical fires caused by tools or plugged-in equipment.
  • Class D: Flammable metals like magnesium, sodium and lithium.
  • Class K: Cooking fats and oils in cooking appliances.

Class A, B, and C extinguishers are for homes and businesses. Class D are often found in factories, and Class K in commercial kitchens. That’s according to John Otero, regional director at PuroClean.

Many home extinguishers can be used on different types of fires. They’re labeled for all appropriate classes, like A-B, B-C or A-B-C. For more information, see this blog from the NFPA and this fact sheet.

How To Use a Fire Extinguisher

Only use a fire extinguisher if it’s safe to approach the fire, and keep a safe distance while putting it out. Then remember the acronym PASS:

  • Pull the pin (or unlock the latch). As you release the locking mechanism, hold the extinguisher with the nozzle pointed away from you.
  • Aim low. Point the nozzle toward the base of the fire.
  • Squeeze the lever slowly and evenly.
  • Sweep the nozzle from side to side until the fire is out.

Stand approximately eight feet from the flames. “If you’re too far away it’s likely the fire won’t be extinguished effectively,” says Thaddeus Harrington, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “But if you’re too close, the flames could spread even farther, compromising your physical safety too.”

Common Fire Extinguisher Mistakes

Here’s what often goes wrong when people use a home fire extinguisher, according to the experts.

  • Not reading the instructions: Every extinguisher has steps and precautions on it. Review them from time to time before there’s an emergency. “Reading the instructions in the event of a fire is not the best idea,” says Harrington. “This is because not only will it use up valuable time, allowing the fire to grow, but it may also be difficult to fully comprehend the instructions in a state of panic.”
  • Standing too close: Remember, the recommended distance is approximately eight feet away.
  • Where to spray the fire: People often point the nozzle at the top of the blaze and make their way down. Instead, sweep from the bottom up. “This is because the fuel that is feeding the fire will be at its base,” says Harrington.
  • Forgetting to pull the pin: “In a moment of urgency, failing to remove the safety pin is all too common,” says Harrington. If you don’t pull the pin, the extinguisher won’t work.
  • Improper extinguisher class: “Some extinguishers expel water, which is great for Class A fires,” says O’Connor. “But if water was used on a Class K cooking oil fire, it would just spread the fire and make things worse.”
  • Tackling too big of a fire. “Fire extinguishers are not for putting out large fires,” Otero says. “Use them for small fires in confined areas only.”

Other Extinguisher and Fire Safety Tips

  • Get hands-on training from the local fire departments or fire equipment distributor.
  • Inspect your fire extinguisher regularly to ensure the pressure gauge is in the operable range and the unit is not damaged or expired.
  • Make a fire escape plan and practice it regularly.
  • Install working smoke alarms and change the batteries once a year.
  • Make sure everyone in your house knows where your extinguishers are and how to use them.

Karuna Eberl
A freelance writer and indie film producer, Karuna Eberl covers the outdoors and nature side of DIY, exploring wildlife, green living, travel and gardening for Family Handyman. She also writes FH’s Eleven Percent column, about dynamic women in the construction workforce. Some of her other credits include the March cover of Readers Digest, National Parks, National Geographic Channel and Atlas Obscura. Karuna and her husband are also on the final stretch of renovating an abandoned house in a near-ghost town in rural Colorado. When they’re not working, you can find them hiking and traveling the backroads, camping in their self-converted van.