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Fire Extinguishers – The First Line of Defence

ASHFORD, England -

By Richard Parker, PFX Business Lead, Chubb Fire & Security

Portable fire extinguishers play a vital role in preventing a ‘small’ fire from becoming a major conflagration. Indeed, the guidance notes of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (FSO) references this very point, stating how the safe use of an appropriate fire extinguisher to control a fire in its early stages can significantly reduce the risk to others. Surveys by the Fire Industry Association have shown that almost 90% of workplace fires are successfully fought with a fire extinguisher.

The FSO therefore recommends that all premises be provided with appropriate fire-fighting equipment. It also states that for the majority, ‘first aid’ fire-fighting equipment - typically, fire extinguishers, blankets and buckets - should be sufficient. In more complex premises, automatic fire suppression systems may be necessary.

Fire extinguishers should be positioned on escape routes, close to the exit from the room or floor, the final exit from the building or, if necessary, adjacent to the hazard. Dedicated stands should be used, or the extinguisher hung on a wall at a convenient height so that users can easily lift them off the ground. Placing the handle of a larger extinguisher at about 1m from the floor, and 1.5m for smaller ones is recommended. Ideally, no one should have to travel more than 30m to reach a fire extinguisher, and an individual should be appointed to regularly check that the extinguishers are in the proper positions. Signs should be used and appropriately installed to ensure any and all fire-fighting equipment can be quickly and easily located if needed in an emergency.

Fire protection products and related services should be fit for their purpose and properly installed and maintained, either in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions or the relevant British Standard. Third-party certification schemes are an effective means of providing the fullest possible assurances, helping to ensure a level of quality, reliability and safety that non-certificated products and services may lack. 

Having the appropriate, approved extinguishers correctly sited and installed to meet the fire risks and to comply with BS 5306-8 is only half of the equation. The equipment needs to be properly maintained in compliance with BS 5306-3 with training provided on how to use the extinguishers should a fire break out. If your fire strategy means that certain people such as fire marshals will be expected to take a more active role, then they should be provided with more comprehensive training, a further point raised in the FSO guidance notes.

Portable fire extinguishers require periodic inspection, maintenance and testing. Depending on local conditions, such as the likelihood of vandalism or the environment where extinguishers are located, the individual given responsibility for fire safety should carry out visual checks regularly to ensure that the extinguishers remain in place and serviceable. In normal conditions, a monthly check should be enough; more thorough maintenance by a trained competent professional should be carried out at least annually.

Fire extinguishers are an essential part of any fire safety strategy. Understanding the law, recognising specific risks, and identifying products that are genuinely ‘fit for purpose’ are similarly key. But what is also important is the need to stay flexible. Extinguishers are not a panacea. It is better by far that the risk be identified and removed before trouble occurs. A small fire fought with a fire extinguisher should be a trigger for the responsible person to review their fire risk assessment.



Types of Extinguishers

The colour coding of fire extinguishers indicating the extinguishing media should comply with BS 7863. Extinguishers manufactured to current standards should be predominately red and may have a colour-coded area, sited on the front, denoting the extinguishing medium. Older extinguishers may have been manufactured with the body of the extinguisher painted in a single colour. These older extinguishers remain acceptable until they are no longer serviceable. However, it is good practice and recommended in BS5306-8 to ensure that old and new style extinguishers are not mixed on the same floor of a building.

Water extinguishers (red)

This type of extinguisher can only be used on Class A fires involving solid materials such as wood, paper or textiles. They allow the user to direct water onto a fire from a considerable distance. A nine litre water extinguisher can be quite heavy and some water extinguishers with additives can achieve the same rating, although they are smaller and therefore considerably lighter. This type of extinguisher is not suitable for use on live electrical equipment.

Water extinguishers with additives (red)

This type of extinguisher is suitable for Class A fires. They are generally more efficient than conventional water extinguishers.

Foam extinguishers (cream)

This type of extinguisher can be used on Class A or B fires of solid materials or flammable liquids such as petrol, diesel or oils and is particularly suited to extinguishing liquid fires such as petrol and diesel. They should not be used on free-flowing liquid fires unless the operator has been specially trained, as these have the potential to rapidly spread the fire to adjacent material. This type of extinguisher is not suitable for deep-fat fryers or chip pans.

Powder extinguishers (blue)

This type of extinguisher can be used on class A, B and C fires involving gases and achieves a good ‘knock down’ of the fire. They can be used on fires involving electrical equipment but may damage delicate electronic/electrical equipment. Because they do not cool the fire appreciably, it can re-ignite. Powder extinguishers can create visibility problems and may affect occupants who have breathing difficulties.

Carbon dioxide extinguishers (black)

This type of extinguisher can be used on Class B fires and is particularly suitable for fires involving electrical equipment as they will extinguish a fire without causing any further damage. With all fires involving electrical equipment, the power should be disconnected if possible. The loud noise accompanying discharge and the freezing effect on the horn of these extinguishers can startle operators so that they drop the extinguisher. These types also do not cool the fire appreciably so it can re-ignite.

Wet Chemical extinguishers (yellow)

This type of extinguisher is particularly suitable for commercial catering establishments with deep-fat fryers (Class F fires). As well as a cooling effect, the wet chemical creates a seal to minimise re-ignition. These models are typically fitted with a longer lance to allow the user to stand safely back from the fire and spray the wet chemical over the burning fat.