Ask a Firefighter: Rules on when to fight a fire yourself

Your local firefighters care about your safety and want to make sure that you have options when a fire occurs in your home. Fire extinguishers are relatively inexpensive and may mean the difference between a small fire and the complete destruction of your home. Fire extinguishers can save lives and protect property by putting out a small fire or containing it until the fire department arrives.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an unwanted fire occurs every 10 seconds. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that there are more than 300,000 fires in residential homes every year. There are several steps you can take to protect yourself and your home. In addition to installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, every residential home should have at least two fire extinguishers available. However, it is important to recognize that a fire extinguisher has limitations and should only be used on a small fire. Since fires grow and spread rapidly, residents should immediately call 911, get everyone out of the home safely, and only fight the fire if it is small and contained with minimal smoke and heat.

Remember, you are never obligated or required to use a fire extinguisher and fight a fire! If you have even the slightest doubt about your control of the situation or your ability to fight the fire safely, just evacuate the area and call 911.

If you decide that the situation allows you to safely attempt to extinguish a fire using a fire extinguisher, consider the following questions and only attempt to fight the fire if the answer is yes to every question:

Is the area being evacuated? Has 911 been called? Is the fire small, contained and not spreading quickly? Is your escape path and exit clear? Is the smoke and heat tolerable? Is a fire extinguisher available? Does the type of fire extinguisher match the type of fire? Do you know how to use a fire extinguisher? Do you feel safe and comfortable attempting to fight the fire? Again, unless the answer to all of these questions is an absolute yes, do not attempt to extinguish the fire. Evacuate the area and call 911.

The United States Fire Administration recommends using the letters of the word PASS to help you safely and properly use a fire extinguisher. These are the four steps to take when using a fire extinguisher: Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep. Pull the pin to release the locking pin while holding the extinguisher with the nozzle pointing away from you. Aim low and direct the nozzle of the extinguisher at the base of the fire. Squeeze the handles together slowly to discharge the contents of the extinguisher. Sweep the nozzle from side-to-side to cover the burning material.

Your local firefighters recommend that you install two multipurpose extinguishers that can be used on all types of home fires and are large enough to put out a small fire. Generally speaking, 5-pound dry chemical extinguishers are sufficient for most residential fires. Be sure to read the operating instructions and become familiar with the extinguishers. Place the extinguishers in visible locations that are close to exits and easily accessible; these include the top of the basement stairs, the kitchen, and the garage.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends that you inspect your fire extinguisher monthly and look for signs of damage. If the pressure gauge reads less than full, have the extinguisher recharged or replaced. Check to see that the extinguisher is not blocked by objects that could interfere with easy access during an emergency. Make sure that the nozzle is not obstructed and that both the pin and the seal are still intact. Inspect the outside of the extinguisher to ensure there are no dents, leaks, rust, or other signs of wear.

Remember, fire extinguishers are an important part of a fire response plan but the most important part is your safe escape. To help you survive a fire in your home, every household should have a fire escape plan, a designated meeting place, readily accessible fire extinguishers, and properly installed and functioning smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors.

Jane Perkins is a fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please email

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