Last reviewed 27 January 2012

This article is in no way intended to replace hands-on training in the use of fire extinguishers, but as it is unlikely that staff are likely to practice their use between training sessions, it may be a useful reminder.

Choosing the wrong fire extinguisher, using the fire extinguisher incorrectly or attempting to tackle a fire that is already spreading — all can lead to injury or loss of life.

The best advice is always “if in doubt – don’t”

Types of fire extinguisher

Portable fire extinguishers fall into five categories according to their contents.

  • Water — for use on combustible materials, eg paper, wood, fabrics, plastics, etc.

  • Foam — for use on combustible materials and flammable liquids, oils, fats, etc.

  • Powder — for use on running flammable liquids and electrical fires.

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) — for use on electrical fires.

  • Wet chemical — primarily for use on fat fires and cooking oil, but also useful for wood, paper, straw, textiles and coal.

Extinguishers should conform to relevant British Standards. They should be regularly maintained and tested by a competent person.

Prior to January 1997, fire extinguishers were colour-coded so that their body colours indicated the extinguisher type. The revised standard requires all new extinguishers to be painted signal red, although a coloured zone on the body of the extinguisher can be of the previously used colour, provided that it does not exceed 5% of the total area.

The colours are:

  • Water — red

  • Foam — cream

  • Powder – blue

  • Carbon Dioxide — black

  • Wet chemical — yellow.

If the provision has one that is green, this is a Halon extinguisher which is now illegal. Speak to your local Fire Service about its disposal.

Using a fire extinguisher

Most fire extinguishers are easy to use, but it can be difficult to read or follow instructions or use them properly in the stressful situation of a real fire. Knowledge and training improves confidence; it can save injury or lives.

First steps

  1. Dependent upon the size of the provision, have at least some staff professionally trained in the use of fire extinguishers.

  2. Cascade down the information.

  3. Ensure it is part of the provision’s induction training for new staff.

  4. Use this guide on a regular basis; ensure staff do not just pay lip service to reading it.

General rules

  1. Put your own and everyone else’s safety first. Property is replaceable, people are not.

  2. Only attempt to tackle a fire in its early stages

  3. Ensure you have a safe escape route

  4. Leave if you feel threatened in any way by fire or smoke.

A useful acronym

PASS stands for Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep.

Pull out the pin — this unlocks the extinguisher allowing it to be discharged

Aim the nozzle, hose or horn (on CO2) at the base of the fire. This is where the source of the fuel is. The fuel needs to be extinguished to stop the fire

Squeeze the levers or handle. While aiming the extinguisher, slowly squeeze the levers or handle to start the discharge. Modern extinguishers will stop discharging if the lever/handle is released; allowing you to move around and make the most effective use of the extinguisher’s contents.

Sweep back and forth. While squeezing the levers, sweep the extinguisher back and forth across the base of the fire until it has been totally extinguished. Start at a sensible distance from the fire and move in closer as it is reduced.

Three things not to do

  1. Turn the extinguisher upside down and thump it on the ground. In the old days, fire extinguishers were operated this way, but not now. If the provision has such an extinguisher — replace it now.

  2. When using a Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extinguisher do not hold on the horn (unless doubly insulated) — it gets very cold and can burn. CO2 can also asphyxiate.

  3. Do not test fire extinguishers. They are designed to be used once and with their full contents.

Other fire extinguishing equipment

Fire Blankets

Fire blankets are also used to extinguish fires. They are made of flame-retardant material. Their use is for small fires or those that have just started to burn, by preventing oxygen from fuelling the flames. They are most useful for electrical or grease/fat fires. They can also be used to wrap round a person whose clothing is on fire.

They are riskier than using a fire extinguisher for two reasons.

  1. You need to get very close to the fire to use it.

  2. You will only get one chance to put out the fire.

When using a fire blanket:

  • put on fire resistant gloves, if available

  • unfold the fire blanket so that it is completely open

  • hold the fire blanket with your hands wrapped in the top edge of the blanket — this protects the hands and lower arms from the heat and flames

  • completely cover the flames with the fire blanket by placing the blanket on top — avoid throwing the blanket; it may cause more problems than it solves

  • let the fire blanket cool completely for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour, after the fire is out.

Where a person’s clothing is on fire, wrap the blanket around the victim.

Unlike fire extinguishers, most fire blankets are designed to be reused.

Sand Buckets

These are low-technology; usually a red bucket, filled with sand (or commercially bought chemicals) with the word “fire” written on them.

They are for use on fuel, oil or fat fires and useful for absorbing spills from flammable liquids.

As with fire blankets they cut off the oxygen supply and also as with fire blankets one must get quite close to the fire to use it and use them on small fires only.

When using a sand bucket:

  • put on fire resistant gloves if available

  • dump the sand on the fire — unlike fire blankets, sand can be thrown; but to be effective a high a concentration of sand as possible is recommended

  • leave the sand in place until it is fully established the fire is extinguished — at least 30 minutes.


The last word goes to American fire chief Robert L Dutton: “Fire prevention is a whole lot easier than fire clean-up. You can unwet, but you can’t unburn.”