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Fires can cause death, severe injuries and the destruction of buildings, equipment and vital paperwork. If a fire causes extensive damage, it can result in temporary, or even permanent, closure, which can mean significant financial losses for businesses.
An outbreak of fire is serious in any workplace and is more common than you might think.
In the latest statistics (2021/2022) from the Fire and Rescue Service, there were:
- 67,389 primary fires (occurred in a (non-derelict) building, vehicle or outdoor structure).
- 27,202 dwelling fires.
- 13,695 other building fires, i.e. commercial, industrial and other building types.
- 276 fire-related fatalities.
- 6,098 non-fatal casualties.
In England alone, there were:
- 12,939 non-dwelling fires (9,839 accidental and 3,100 deliberate).
– The main causes of the fires were faulty fuel supplies, faulty appliances and leads, misuse of equipment or appliances and other accidental causes.
- 11 fire-related fatalities and 746 non-fatal casualties.
These statistics highlight the importance of preventing fires in the first instance and having appropriate protective measures if a fire does occur on the premises. It is also the law.
Protective measures can include fire detection systems and warnings, fire-resistant materials, fire safety signs, escape routes, emergency exits, fire safety doors, emergency procedures and plans, training, etc. They also include firefighting equipment, such as hoses, sprinklers and fire extinguishers. Here, we will focus on the latter and how to use them.
What are fire extinguishers?
Fire extinguishers are portable firefighting equipment, i.e. they can be moved to different locations by hand or on wheels. There are many types of fire extinguishers.
They are pressurised cylinders containing firefighting media, e.g. foam, powder, gas or water, sprayed from a hose and nozzle when operated.
A user manually operates a fire extinguisher by pressing an operating lever. They are then used to control or extinguish small fires.
What are the types of fire extinguishers?
Fires are divided into classes based on the type(s) of fuel involved. The classification of fires is from British and European Standards. There are six different classes, and each fire type can present different hazards.
Classes of fire
- Class A – Combustible materials, such as flammable solids, e.g. paper, wood, cardboard, textiles, plastic and rubber.
- Class B – Flammable liquids, e.g. solvents, petrol, oils and paints.
- Class C – Flammable gases, e.g. propane, hydrogen, acetylene, LPG and butane.
- Class D – Combustible metals, e.g. sodium, potassium, magnesium and aluminium.
- Electrical – These types of fires are not strictly a class. Electricity is not a fuel; it is an ignition source. It can be involved in a fire, but it will not burn. It is included as a class, as it can increase the risk during a fire. The class of fire will change on the removal of the electricity.
- Class F – Cooking oils and fats, e.g. a chip pan fire.
Types of fire extinguishers
The above classes have corresponding fire extinguishers, and the main types are as follows:
– Red band on the extinguisher.
– Extinguishes by cooling and removing heat from the fire.
– Can be used on class A fires.
– Should not be used on any other class of fire.
– There are also water with additive extinguishers, which are wetter due to a higher saturation level and can be used on the same class as water extinguishers.
– Water mist extinguishers are also available with de-ionised water, which can be used on other classes of fires.
– Cream band on the extinguisher.
– Extinguishes by cooling the fire and covering it with foam.
– Can be used on class A and class B fires.
– Should not be used on class C, class D, class F or electrical fires.
- Dry powder
– Blue band on the extinguisher.
– Also known as ABC extinguishers because they can be used on fire types A, B and C.
– Extinguishes by smothering the fire.
– Can be used on class A, class B, class C and electrical fires.
– Should not be used on class F fires.
– Specialist powders tend to be used on class D fires and may have a purple band.
- Carbon dioxide (CO2)
– Black band on the extinguisher.
– Extinguishes by displacing oxygen.
– Can be used on class B and electrical fires.
– Should not be used on class A, class C, class D and class F fires.
- Wet chemical
– Yellow band on the extinguisher.
– Uses a fine mist that cools the fire and salts that form a layer on top of cooking oils/fats.
– Can be used on class A and class F fires.
– Should not be used on class B, class C, class D or electrical fires.
There are also fire blankets made of flame-retardant material. They are used for small class F fires and on people whose clothing has caught fire. The fire blanket covers the fire and extinguishes it by cutting off the oxygen.
How do fire extinguishers work?
For a fire to start and continue burning, it requires three elements, usually demonstrated in a fire triangle.
These three elements are as follows:
The removal of one or more of these elements will extinguish a fire, for example:
- Starving – Stopping the fire from getting any fuel.
- Cooling – Reducing the heat in the blaze to extinguish the fire.
- Smothering – Stopping oxygen from getting to the fire.
Most fire extinguishers focus on smothering, cooling or a combination of the two to put out a fire.
Is it a legal requirement to have fire extinguishers?
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRFSO) 2005 Article 13 requires the responsible person to ensure that:
- The premises are, to the extent that it is appropriate, equipped with appropriate firefighting equipment and with fire detectors and alarms; and
- Any non-automatic firefighting equipment so provided is easily accessible, simple to use and indicated by signs.
Fire extinguishers are not strictly a mandatory protective measure. However, under the RRFSO, the responsible person must ensure they have appropriate firefighting equipment on the premises. The type needed will depend on the nature of the premises and the business activities. Some insurance companies may require specific premises to have fire extinguishers.
The RRFSO Article 9 states:
“The responsible person must make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to which relevant persons are exposed for the purpose of identifying the general fire precautions he needs to take to comply with the requirements and prohibitions imposed on him by or under this Order.”
Therefore, the responsible person must complete a fire risk assessment to identify the fire precautions needed for their premises. It will include determining whether fire extinguishers are the most suitable firefighting equipment for the risks.
If the fire risk assessment identifies that fire extinguishers are necessary, the responsible person must ensure they are of the correct type, sufficient in number and suitably located.
This will be determined by:
- The types of fuel in the workplace, e.g. fire classification.
- The activities and risks.
- The layout of the workplace.
- The number of occupants.
- The estimated size of the fire.
How to choose the correct fire extinguisher
The responsible person must ensure they use the fire risk assessment findings to choose and provide the correct fire extinguishers for the type of fires that may occur. For example, if there is a risk of an electrical fire, the responsible person may provide a carbon dioxide or dry powder extinguisher close to the location.
There may be instances where there are different fire hazards and fuel types in a location, which require different fire extinguishers. In these cases, the person fighting the fire must choose the correct one, as the incorrect choice can worsen the fire, which can put their lives and others at risk.
To reduce the risk of someone choosing the wrong extinguisher, the responsible person must ensure that anyone expected to use them receives regular training and is competent.
Actions to consider before using a fire extinguisher
If there is a fire, the first thing to do is to alert others in the building, i.e. by operating the fire alarm and contacting the Fire and Rescue Service (dial 999).
There are also several things to consider before picking up a fire extinguisher and attempting to fight a fire.
- Is it safe to tackle the fire? Fire extinguishers are only designed to control or extinguish small fires, i.e. no larger than a small waste paper bin.
- Am I trained? Anyone expected to use fire extinguishers must be trained and competent to operate them unless a person needs to use them if a fire is blocking their escape.
- Is there an alternative escape route? There must be another escape route for a person to leave the building if they cannot extinguish the fire.
- Are the correct fire extinguishers available? Remember, the incorrect one can make a fire worse and endanger life. If the individual does not know which fuel is burning, they should not attempt to extinguish it.
- Is the fire extinguisher ok to use? For example, are there any signs of damage or tampering? If the extinguisher has a pressure gauge, it must be in the safe green zone. The individual should test the extinguisher first to see if it works.
If the answer to any of the above is no, the individual must not attempt to fight the fire. They must use their nearest escape route and evacuate the building as quickly and calmly as possible. They should also inform the Fire and Rescue Service that the fire has not been extinguished.
How do you use a fire extinguisher?
If an individual determines it is safe to use a fire extinguisher after a quick assessment, they must use it correctly. The method of use will depend on the type of fire extinguishers present, which should be covered in fire safety training.
Different fire extinguishers can have varying instructions for use, so always check these. However, in the case of a fire, it is unlikely individuals will have time to read these instructions in an emergency.
Therefore, they can follow general advice with the PASS method.
- Pull the pin
– Firstly, pull the safety pin from the fire extinguisher. It may have a small plastic seal around it (known as a tamper seal), which will break when removing the pin.
- Aim at the base of the fire
– Aim the nozzle low at the base of the fire and not at the flames.
- Squeeze the lever/handle
– Gently squeeze the handle slowly until the fire extinguisher discharges.
- Sweep side to side
– Sweep the nozzle from side to side in small motions at the base of the fire until the fire extinguisher is fully discharged. This will act to cover the base of the fire and should be continued until the fire is out.
If the fire reignites afterwards, repeat steps 2 to 4.
Other tips include:
- Always hold the fire extinguisher upright and by the operating lever.
- Take the hose from its storage and hold it approximately 5cm from the nozzle.
- Test the fire extinguisher away from the fire to ensure it works by gently squeezing the handle for a short burst.
- Stand approximately 3 metres away from the fire when using extinguishers. Always stand at least 1 metre away at a safe distance.
- Always leave the fire and evacuate the building if there are signs of the fire reigniting.
Here are some additional considerations for specific fires and when using particular types of fire extinguishers.
- If possible and safe, turn off electrical equipment.
- Never use water and foam fire extinguishers on or around live electrical equipment if there is a fire.
- If possible and safe, contain any flowing liquids.
- If liquids are still flowing, the fire extinguisher nozzle should be directed at the base of the flames and swept upwards until extinguished.
- If it is a liquid fire, the extinguisher, such as foam, should be aimed at the side of the fire and over it to cover it with foam. Spraying it directly at the fire can cause splashing and spread the fire.
Burning gas fires
- If possible and safe, switch off the gas supply.
- The powder should be aimed at the gas flare until extinguished.
Oil and fat fires
- If possible and safe, turn off the heat source.
- Never attempt to move a pan or container with burning liquid.
- The wet chemical extinguisher should be sprayed in circular movements. Spraying it directly at the fire can cause splashing and spread the fire. It can also burn the extinguisher user.
Guidance for specific types of fire extinguishers:
Carbon dioxide fire extinguishers
- Stand approximately 1-3 metres from the fire when using CO2 extinguishers.
- The operating lever must be held with both hands.
- The horn should be raised to a 90-degree angle.
- Individuals must never put their hands on the horn of a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher while using it or afterwards, as it can get very cold and cause freeze burns. There are CO2 extinguishers with frost-free horns which can prevent burns.
- CO2 fire extinguishers should never be used in confined spaces and small rooms, as the gas can displace oxygen, which can cause loss of consciousness, asphyxiation and even death.
Dry powder fire extinguishers
- Stand approximately 5-7 metres away from the fire when using dry powder extinguishers.
- These fire extinguishers should not be used in confined areas and are not recommended for indoor use because the powder can widely spread and affect the respiratory system, as it is inhalable. These considerations should be included in a risk assessment.
- Remove the blanket from its box by pulling the tapes at the bottom.
- Hold the blanket corners and ensure it is big enough to cover the fire.
- Place the blanket over the fire while making sure hands are shielded from the flames.
- Leave the fire covered for at least 30 minutes to completely cool.
Fires can have devastating consequences for businesses and individuals. Therefore, by law, the responsible person must ensure they complete a fire risk assessment for their premises and determine the general precautions and protective measures needed to reduce the risks to occupants (relevant persons) if a fire does break out.
If the protective measures include fire extinguishers, they must be of the correct type, sited in appropriate locations, identified by signage and regularly checked and serviced. Also, anyone expected to use fire extinguishers must have fire safety training relating to their role.
Fire safety training for those who use fire extinguishers should involve a practical demonstration of the safe operation of fire extinguishers. The training should be refreshed regularly, and there should be practice evacuation drills to ensure individuals know what to do if there is a fire.
Individuals should only attempt to put out a fire if it is small and doesn’t put them, and others, in harm’s way. If there are any doubts, they should evacuate the building using their nearest escape route and exit.