Fire Safety Learning Center

Articles and other information related to fire safety equipment and procedures in Illinois.

Fire Extinguishers: Types and Uses

It is not uncommon to see fire extinguishers in homes, businesses and public places. The (typically) red, cylindrical device is ubiquitous in our world, sometimes encased behind safety glass.

But how much do we actually know about them? If faced with a fire, would you know how to correctly operate a fire extinguisher under duress?

The reality is that there are many different types of fire extinguishers with different uses. Utilizing the wrong type of extinguisher in a fire situation can be deadly. 

  • Water-based extinguishers are usually expelled in the form of foam or mist. They should only be used on fires involving solid combustibles, such as wood, paper and plastic. Using water to put out gasoline or electrical fires can be very harmful. 
  • Clean agent extinguishers are usually ideal for fires involving flammable liquid and electrical equipment because they leave very little residue and are unlikely to cause permanent damage. Some clean agent extinguishers can be used on solid combustibles. 
  • Carbon Dioxide extinguishers combat fires by attacking the oxygen element. They can be used on flammable liquid and electrical fires but do not usually work on solid combustibles.  
  • Dry chemical extinguishers are widely used because of their versatility. They can generally be used on all fires except for those involving metals and cooking oils. 
  • Wet chemical extinguishers are specialized to put out kitchen fires, especially in commercial kitchens that utilize large vats of oil for frying.
  • Dry powder extinguishers are used exclusively for metal fires, such as those that can occur in laboratories and manufacturing plants. 

Once you are familiar with the fire extinguishers in your home or workplace, using them is relatively straightforward. Simply pull the pin, aim toward the fire, squeeze the lever and spray the discharge side to side, covering the entire surface area of the fire. 

Not all extinguishers work on all fires. Occasionally, a fire can reignite after being initally extinguished because the right type of extinguisher was not used. This can give someone a dangerous false sense of security. Also, the size and severity of fires that an extinguisher can put out tends to vary across products. Check your extinguisher's label and make sure you're familiar with its intended use. 

As always, call 911 if the fire becomes too large to fight by yourself. Fire extinguishers are meant to assist you, not replace the role of a fireman. If a fire becomes too much to handle, get to safety and leave it to the professionals.  

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