A fire extinguisher is a handheld active fire protection device usually filled with a dry or wet chemical used to extinguish or control small fires, often in emergencies. It is not intended for use on an out-of-control fire, such as one which has reached the ceiling, endangers the user (i.e., no escape route, smoke, explosion hazard, etc.), or otherwise requires the equipment, personnel, resources, and/or expertise of a fire brigade. Typically, a fire extinguisher consists of a hand-held cylindrical pressure vessel containing an agent that can be discharged to extinguish a fire. Fire extinguishers manufactured with non-cylindrical pressure vessels also exist but are less common.
There are two main types of fire extinguishers: stored-pressure and cartridge-operated. In stored pressure units, the expellant is stored in the same chamber as the firefighting agent itself. Depending on the agent used, different propellants are used. With dry chemical extinguishers, nitrogen is typically used; water and foam extinguishers typically use air. Stored pressure fire extinguishers are the most common type. Cartridge-operated extinguishers contain the expellant gas in a separate cartridge that is punctured before discharge, exposing the propellant to the extinguishing agent. This type is not as common, used primarily in areas such as industrial facilities, where they receive higher-than-average use. They have the advantage of simple and prompt recharge, allowing an operator to discharge the extinguisher, recharge it, and return to the fire in a reasonable amount of time. Unlike stored pressure types, these extinguishers use compressed carbon dioxide instead of nitrogen, although nitrogen cartridges are used on low-temperature (–60 rated) models. Cartridge-operated extinguishers are available in dry chemical and dry powder types in the U.S. and water, wetting agent, foam, dry chemical (classes ABC and B.C.), and dry powder (class D) types in the rest of the world.
Fire extinguishers are further divided into handheld and cart-mounted (also called wheeled extinguishers). Handheld extinguishers weigh from 0.5 to 14 kilograms (1.1 to 30.9 lb), and are hence, easily portable by hand. Cart-mounted units typically weigh more than 23 kilograms (51 lb). These wheeled models are most commonly found at construction sites, airport runways, heliports, as well as docks and marinas.
The first fire extinguisher of which there is any record was patented in England in 1723 by Ambrose Godfrey, a celebrated chemist at that time. It consisted of a cask of fire-extinguishing liquid containing a pewter chamber of gunpowder. This was connected with a system of fuses which were ignited, exploding the gunpowder and scattering the solution. This device was probably used to a limited extent, as Bradley's Weekly Messenger for November 7, 1729, refers to its efficiency in stopping a fire in London.
A portable pressurised fire extinguisher, the 'Extincteur' was invented by British Captain George William Manby and demonstrated in 1816 to the 'Commissioners for the affairs of Barracks'; it consisted of a copper vessel of 3 gallons (13.6 liters) of pearl ash (potassium carbonate) solution contained within compressed air. When operated it expelled liquid onto the fire.
Thomas J Martin, an American inventor, was awarded a patent for an improvement in the Fire Extinguishers on March 26, 1872. His invention is listed in the U. S. Patent Office in Washington, DC under patent number 125,603.
The soda-acid extinguisher was first patented in 1866 by Francois Carlier of France, which mixed a solution of water and sodium bicarbonate with tartaric acid, producing the propellant CO2 gas. A soda-acid extinguisher was patented in the U.S. in 1880 by Almon M. Granger. His extinguisher used the reaction between sodium bicarbonate solution and sulfuric acid to expel pressurized water onto a fire. A vial of concentrated sulfuric acid was suspended in the cylinder. Depending on the type of extinguisher, the vial of acid could be broken in one of two ways. One used a plunger to break the acid vial, while the second released a lead stopple that held the vial closed. Once the acid was mixed with the bicarbonate solution, carbon dioxide gas was expelled and thereby pressurized the water. The pressurized water was forced from the canister through a nozzle or short length of hose.
The cartridge-operated extinguisher was invented by Read & Campbell of England in 1881, which used water or water-based solutions. They later invented a carbon tetrachloride model called the "Petrolex" which was marketed toward automotive use.
The chemical foam extinguisher was invented in 1904 by Aleksandr Loran in Russia, based on his previous invention of fire fighting foam. Loran first used it to extinguish a pan of burning naphtha. It worked and looked similar to the soda-acid type, but the inner parts were slightly different. The main tank contained a solution of sodium bicarbonate in water, whilst the inner container (somewhat larger than the equivalent in a soda-acid unit) contained a solution of aluminium sulphate. When the solutions were mixed, usually by inverting the unit, the two liquids reacted to create a frothy foam, and carbon dioxide gas. The gas expelled the foam in the form of a jet. Although liquorice-root extracts and similar compounds were used as additives (stabilizing the foam by reinforcing the bubble-walls), there was no "foam compound" in these units. The foam was a combination of the products of the chemical reactions: sodium and aluminium salt-gels inflated by the carbon dioxide. Because of this, the foam was discharged directly from the unit, with no need for an aspirating branchpipe (as in newer mechanical foam types). Special versions were made for rough service, and vehicle mounting, known as apparatus of fire department types. Key features were a screw-down stopper that kept the liquids from mixing until it was manually opened, carrying straps, a longer hose, and a shut-off nozzle. Fire department types were often private label versions of major brands, sold by apparatus manufacturers to match their vehicles. Examples are Pirsch, Ward LaFrance, Mack, Seagrave, etc. These types are some of the most collectable extinguishers as they cross into both the apparatus restoration and fire extinguisher areas of interest.
In 1910, The Pyrene Manufacturing Company of Delaware filed a patent for using carbon tetrachloride (CTC, or CCl4) to extinguish fires. The liquid vaporized and extinguished the flames by inhibiting the chemical chain reaction of the combustion process (it was an early 20th-century presupposition that the fire suppression ability of carbon tetrachloride relied on oxygen removal). In 1911, they patented a small, portable extinguisher that used the chemical. This consisted of a brass or chrome container with an integrated handpump, which was used to expel a jet of liquid towards the fire. It was usually of 1 imperial quart (1.1 L) or 1 imperial pint (0.57 l) capacity but was also available in up to 2 imperial gallons (9.1 L) size. As the container was unpressurized, it could be refilled after use through a filling plug with a fresh supply of CTC.
Another type of carbon tetrachloride extinguisher was the fire grenade. This consisted of a glass sphere filled with CTC, that was intended to be hurled at the base of a fire (early ones used salt-water, but CTC was more effective). Carbon tetrachloride was suitable for liquid and electrical fires and the extinguishers were fitted to motor vehicles. Carbon tetrachloride extinguishers were withdrawn in the 1950s because of the chemical's toxicity – exposure to high concentrations damages the nervous system and internal organs. Additionally, when used on a fire, the heat can convert CTC to phosgene gas, formerly used as a chemical weapon.
The carbon dioxide (CO2) extinguisher was invented (at least in the US) by the Walter Kidde Company in 1924 in response to Bell Telephone's request for an electrically non-conductive chemical for extinguishing the previously difficult-to-extinguish fires in telephone switchboards. It consisted of a tall metal cylinder containing 7.5 pounds (3.4 kg) of CO2 with a wheel valve and a woven brass, cotton covered hose, with a composite funnel-like horn as a nozzle. CO2 is still popular today as it is an ozone-friendly clean agent and is used heavily in film and television production to extinguish burning stuntmen. Carbon dioxide extinguishes fire mainly by displacing oxygen. It was once thought that it worked by cooling, although this effect on most fires is negligible. An anecdotal report of a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher was published in Scientific American in 1887 which describes the case of a basement fire at a Louisville, Kentucky pharmacy which melted a lead pipe charge with CO2 (called carbonic acid gas at the time) intended for a soda fountain which immediately extinguished the flames thus saving the building. Also in 1887, carbonic acid gas was described as a fire extinguisher for engine chemical fires at sea and ashore.
In 1928, DuGas (later bought by ANSUL) came out with a cartridge-operated dry chemical extinguisher, which used sodium bicarbonate specially treated with chemicals to render it free-flowing and moisture-resistant. It consisted of a copper cylinder with an internal CO2 cartridge. The operator turned a wheel valve on top to puncture the cartridge and squeezed a lever on the valve at the end of the hose to discharge the chemical. This was the first agent available for large-scale three-dimensional liquid and pressurized gas fires, but remained largely a specialty type until the 1950s, when small dry chemical units were marketed for home use. ABC dry chemical came over from Europe in the 1950s, with Super-K being invented in the early 1960s and Purple-K being developed by the US Navy in the late 1960s. Manually applied dry agents such as graphite for class D (metal) fires had existed since WWII, but it was not until 1949 that Ansul introduced a pressurized extinguisher using an external CO2 cartridge to discharge the agent. Met-L-X (sodium chloride) was the first extinguisher developed in the US, with graphite, copper, and several other types being developed later.
In the 1940s, Germany invented the liquid chlorobromomethane (CBM) for use in aircraft. It was more effective and slightly less toxic than carbon tetrachloride and was used until 1969. Methyl bromide was discovered as an extinguishing agent in the 1920s and was used extensively in Europe. It is a low-pressure gas that works by inhibiting the chain reaction of the fire and is the most toxic of the vaporizing liquids, used until the 1960s. The vapor and combustion by-products of all vaporizing liquids were highly toxic and could cause death in confined spaces.
In the 1970s, Halon 1211 came over to the United States from Europe where it had been used since the late 1940s or early 1950s. Halon 1301 had been developed by DuPont and the US Army in 1954. Both 1211 and 1301 work by inhibiting the chain reaction of the fire, and in the case of Halon 1211, cooling class A fuels as well. Halon is still in use today but is falling out of favor for many uses due to its environmental impact. Europe and Australia have severely restricted its use, since the Montreal Protocol of 1987. Less severe restrictions have been implemented in the United States, the Middle East, and Asia.
Internationally there are several accepted classification methods for hand-held fire extinguisher. Each classification is useful in fighting fires with a particular group of fuel.
Specifications of fire extinguishers are set out in the standard AS/NZS 1841, the most recent version being released in 2007. All fire extinguishers must be painted signal red. Except for water extinguishers, each extinguisher has a coloured band near the top, covering at least 10% of the extinguisher's body length, specifying its contents.
|Type||Band colour||Fire classes (brackets denote sometimes applicable)|
|Dry powder (metal fires)||Lime green||D|
|Vaporizing liquid (non-halon clean agents)||Golden yellow||A||B||C||E|
|Halon||No longer produced||A||B||E|
Due to the ozone-depleting nature of halon, in Australia yellow (Halon) fire extinguishers are illegal to own or use on a fire, unless an essential use exemption has been granted.
According to the standard BS EN 3, fire extinguishers in the United Kingdom as all throughout Europe are red RAL 3000, and a band or circle of a second color covering between 5–10% of the surface area of the extinguisher indicates the contents. Before 1997, the entire body of the fire extinguisher was color coded according to the type of extinguishing agent.
The UK recognises six fire classes:
Class E has been discontinued, but covered fires involving electrical appliances. This is no longer used on the basis that, when the power supply is turned off, an electrical fire can fall into any of the remaining five categories.
|Type||Old code||BS EN 3 colour code||Fire classes|
(brackets denote sometimes applicable)
|Water||Signal red||Signal red||A|
|Foam||Cream||Red with a cream panel above the operating instructions||A||B|
|Dry powder||French blue||Red with a blue panel above the operating instructions||A||B||C||E|
|Carbon dioxide, CO2||Black||Red with a black panel above the operating instructions||B||E|
|Wet chemical||Yellow (not in use)||Red with a canary yellow panel above the operating instructions||A||(B)||F|
|Class D powder||French blue||Red with a blue panel above the operating instructions||D|
|Halon 1211/BCF||Emerald green||No longer in general use||A||B||E|
In the UK, the use of Halon gas is now prohibited except under certain situations such as on aircraft and in the military and police.
Fire extinguishing performance per fire class is displayed using numbers and letters such as 13A, 55B.
EN3 does not recognise a separate electrical class – however there is an additional feature requiring special testing (35 kV dielectric test per EN 3-7:2004). A powder or CO2 extinguisher will bear an electrical pictogramme as standard signifying that it can be used on live electrical fires (given the symbol E in the table). If a water-based extinguisher has passed the 35 kV test it will also bear the same electrical pictogramme – however, any water-based extinguisher is only recommended for inadvertent use on electrical fires.
There is no official standard in the United States for the color of fire extinguishers, though they are usually red, except for class D extinguishers which are usually yellow, water and Class K wet chemical extinguishers which are usually silver, and water mist extinguishers which are usually white. Extinguishers are marked with pictograms depicting the types of fires that the extinguisher is approved to fight. In the past, extinguishers were marked with colored geometric symbols, and some extinguishers still use both symbols. The types of fires and additional standards are described in NFPA 10: Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers, 2013 edition.
|Fire class||Geometric symbol||Pictogram||Intended use||Mnemonic|
|A||Ordinary solid combustibles||A for "Ash"|
|B||Flammable liquids and gases||B for "Barrel"|
|C||Energized electrical equipment||C for "Current"|
|D||Combustible metals||D for "Dynamite"|
|K||Oils and fats||K for "Kitchen"|
Fire extinguishing capacity is rated in accordance with ANSI/UL 711: Rating and Fire Testing of Fire Extinguishers. The ratings are described using numbers preceding the class letter, such as 1-A:10-B:C. The number preceding the A multiplied by 1.25 gives the equivalent extinguishing capability in gallons of water. The number preceding the B indicates the size of fire in square feet that an ordinary user should be able to extinguish. There is no additional rating for class C, as it only indicates that the extinguishing agent will not conduct electricity, and an extinguisher will never have a rating of just C.
|Class A||Class A||Class A||Class A||Ordinary combustibles|
|Class B||Class B||Class B||Class B||Flammable liquids|
|Class C||Class C||Class C||Flammable gases|
|Class C||Unclassified||Unclassified||Class E||Electrical equipment|
|Class D||Class D||Class D||Class D||Combustible metals|
|Class K||Class F||Class F||Class F||Cooking oil or fat|
Fire extinguishers are usually fitted in buildings at an easily accessible location, such as against a wall in a high-traffic area. They are also often fitted to motor vehicles, watercraft, and aircraft – this is required by law in many jurisdictions, for identified classes of vehicles. Under NFPA 10 all commercial vehicles must carry at least one fire extinguisher, with size/UL rating depending on type of vehicle and cargo (i.e., fuel tankers usually must have a 20 lb (9.1 kg), while most others can carry a 5 lb (2.3 kg)). The revised NFPA 10 created criteria on the placement of "fast flow extinguishers" in locations such as those storing and transporting pressurized flammable liquids and pressurized flammable gas or areas with possibility of three-dimensional class B hazards are required to have "fast flow extinguishers" as required by NFPA 22.214.171.124. Varying classes of competition vehicles require fire extinguishing systems, the simplest requirements being a 1A:10BC hand-held portable extinguisher mounted to the interior of the vehicle.
The height limit for installation, as determined by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), is 60 in (1.5 m) for fire extinguishers weighing less than 40 lb (18 kg). However, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also needs to be followed within the United States. The ADA height limit of the fire extinguisher, as measured at the handle, is 48 in (1.2 m). Fire extinguisher installations are also limited to protruding no more than 4 inches into the adjacent path of travel. The ADA rule states that any object adjacent to a path of travel may not project more than 4 in (10 cm) if the object's bottom leading edge is higher than 27 in (0.69 m). The 4-inch protrusion rule was designed to protect people with low-vision and those who are blind. The height limit rule of 48 inches is primarily related to access by people with wheelchairs but it is also related to other disabilities as well. Prior to 2012, the height limit was 54 in (1.4 m) for side-reach by wheelchair-accessible installations. Installations made prior to 2012 at the 54-inch height are not required to be changed.
In New Zealand, the mandatory installation of fire extinguishers in vehicles is limited to self-propelled plant in agriculture and arboriculture, passenger service vehicles with more than 12 seats and vehicles that carry flammable goods. NZ Transport Agency recommends that all company vehicles carry a fire extinguisher, including passenger cars.
Fire extinguishers mounted inside aircraft engines are called extinguishing bottles or fire bottles.
Different types of extinguishing agents have different modes of action, and certain ones are only appropriate for specific fire classes.
This is a powder-based agent that extinguishes by separating the three parts of the fire triangle. It prevents the chemical reactions involving heat, fuel, and oxygen, thus extinguishing the fire. During combustion, the fuel breaks down into free radicals, which are highly reactive fragments of molecules that react with oxygen. The substances in dry chemical extinguishers can stop this process.
Applied to fuel fires as either an aspirated (mixed and expanded with air in a branch pipe) or nonaspirated form to create a frothy blanket or seal over the fuel, preventing oxygen reaching it. Unlike powder, foam can be used to progressively extinguish fires without flashback.
Water cools burning material and is very effective against fires in furniture, fabrics, etc. (including deep-seated fires). Water-based extinguishers cannot be used safely on energized electrical fires or flammable liquid fires.
Wet chemical (potassium acetate, potassium carbonate, or potassium citrate) extinguishes the fire by forming an air-excluding soapy foam blanket over the burning oil through the chemical process of saponification (a base reacting with a fat to form a soap) and by the water content cooling the oil below its ignition temperature. Generally, class A and K (F in Europe) only, although older models also achieved class B and C fire-fighting capability in the past, current models are rated A:K (Amerex, Ansul, Buckeye and Strike First) or K only (Badger/Kidde).
Clean agents extinguish fire by displacing oxygen (CO2 or inert gases), removing heat from the combustion zone (Halotron I, FE-36, Novec 1230) or inhibiting the chemical chain reaction (Halons, Halotron BrX). They are referred to as clean agents because they do not leave any residue after discharge, which is ideal for protecting sensitive electronics, aircraft, armored vehicles and archival storage, museums, and valuable documents.
Halon was completely banned in Europe and Australia except for critical users like law enforcement and aviation, resulting in stockpiles either being destroyed via high heat incineration or being sent to the United States for reuse. Halon 1301 and 1211 are being replaced with new halocarbon agents which have no ozone depletion properties and low atmospheric lifetimes, but are less effective. Halon 2402 is a liquid agent (dibromotetrafluoroethane) which has had limited use in the West due to its higher toxicity than 1211 or 1301. It is widely used in Russia and parts of Asia, and it was used by Kidde's Italian branch, marketed under the name "Fluobrene".
There are several class D fire extinguisher agents available; some will handle multiple types of metals, others will not.
TMB was used experimentally by the US Air Force, specifically with regard to B-52 engine assemblies, and was tested in modified 10-gallon wheeled CBM extinguishers. Other agents were added to suppress the methanol flare up, such as chlorobromomethane (CBM), Halon 2402, and Halon 1211, with varied success. Halon 1211 was the most successful, and the combined TMB pressurized with halon 1211 and nitrogen was called Boralon was used experimentally by the Los Alamos National Laboratory for use on atomic metals, using sealed cylinder extinguishers made by Metalcraft and Graviner which eliminated the moisture contamination problem. TMB/Boralon was abandoned in favor of more versatile agents, though it is still mentioned in most US firefighting literature.
Buffalo marketed a 9.5 L (2.5 US gal) and 0.95 L (1 US qt) extinguisher using M-X liquid discharged through a low-velocity shower head-type nozzle, but it was met with limited success, as it was going up against Ansul's Met-L-X, which could be used on more types of metals and was non-combustible. M-X had the advantage of being easy to recharge and non-corrosive since it was oil-based, but production did not last long due to its limited applications.
Most class D extinguishers will have a special low-velocity nozzle or discharge wand to gently apply the agent in large volumes to avoid disrupting any finely divided burning materials. Agents are also available in bulk and can be applied with a scoop or shovel.
Several modern "ball" or grenade-style extinguishers are available on the market. The modern version of the ball is a hard foam shell, wrapped in fuses that lead to a small black powder charge within. The ball bursts shortly after contact with flame, dispersing a cloud of ABC dry chemical powder which extinguishes the fire. The coverage area is about 5 m2 (54 sq ft). One benefit of this type is that it may be used for passive suppression. The ball can be placed in a fire-prone area and will deploy automatically if a fire develops, being triggered by heat. They may also be manually operated by rolling or tossing into a fire. Most modern extinguishers of this type are designed to make a loud noise upon deployment.
This technology is not new, however. From about 1880 glass "fire grenades" filled with a weak solution of common salt and ammonium chloride in water were popular. The addition of the salts was to prevent freezing, with ammonium chloride thought to be more effective in extinguishing flame. They were deployed by hurling them at the base of the fire. Containing only about one imperial pint (0.57 l) they were of limited use. Some later brands, such as Red Comet, were designed for passive operation and included a special holder with a spring-loaded trigger that would break the glass ball when a fusible link melted, or were sealed with wax to melt in contact with flame and release the contents. As was typical of this era, some glass extinguishers contained the toxic (but effective) carbon tetrachloride. These glass fire grenade bottles are sought after by collectors.
Condensed aerosol fire suppression is a particle-based form of fire extinction similar to gaseous fire suppression or dry chemical fire extinction. As with gaseous fire suppressants, condensed aerosol suppressants use clean agents to suppress the fire. The agent can be delivered by means of mechanical operation, electric operation, or combined electro-mechanical operation. To the difference of gaseous suppressants, which emit only gas, and dry chemical extinguishers, which release powder-like particles of a large size (25–150 µm) condensed aerosols are defined by the National Fire Protection Association as releasing finely divided solid particles (generally <10 µm), usually in addition to gas.
Whereas dry chemical systems must be directly aimed at the flame, condensed aerosols are flooding agents and therefore effective regardless of the location and height of the fire. Wet chemical systems, such as the kind generally found in foam extinguishers, must, similarly to dry chemical systems, be sprayed directionally, onto the fire. Additionally, wet chemicals (such as potassium carbonate) are dissolved in water, whereas the agents used in condensed aerosols are microscopic solids.
In 2015, researchers from George Mason University announced that high volume sound with low bass frequencies in the 30 to 60 hertz range drives oxygen away from the combustion surface, extinguishing the fire, a principle was previously tested by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). One proposed application is to extinguish fires in outer space, with none of the clean-up required for mass-based systems.
Another proposed solution for fire extinguishers in space is a vacuum cleaner that extracts the combustible materials.
Most countries in the world require regular fire extinguisher maintenance by a competent person to operate safely and effectively, as part of fire safety legislation. Lack of maintenance can lead to an extinguisher not discharging when required, or rupturing when pressurized. Deaths have occurred, even in recent times, from corroded extinguishers exploding.
In the United States, state and local fire codes, as well as those established by federal agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are generally consistent with standards established by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). They commonly require, for fire extinguishers in all buildings other than single-family dwellings, inspections every 30 days to ensure the unit is pressurized and unobstructed (done by an employee of the facility) and an annual inspection and service by a qualified technician. Some jurisdictions require more frequent service. The servicer places a tag on the extinguisher to indicate the type of service performed (annual inspection, recharge, new fire extinguisher). Hydrostatic pressure testing for all types of extinguishers is also required, generally every five years for water and CO2 models up to every 12 years for dry chemical models.
Recently the NFPA and ICC voted to allow for the elimination of the 30-day inspection requirement so long as the fire extinguisher is monitored electronically. According to NFPA, the system must provide record keeping in the form of an electronic event log at the control panel. The system must also constantly monitor an extinguisher's physical presence, internal pressure and whether an obstruction exists that could prevent ready access. In the event that any of the above conditions are found, the system must send an alert to officials so they can immediately rectify the situation. Electronic monitoring can be wired or wireless.
In the UK, three types of maintenance are required:
In the United States, there are three types of service:
Fire extinguishers are sometimes a target of vandalism in schools and other open spaces. Extinguishers are occasionally partially or fully discharged by a vandal, impairing the extinguisher's actual fire-fighting abilities.
In open public spaces, extinguishers are ideally kept inside cabinets that have glass that must be broken to access the extinguisher, or which emit an alarm siren that cannot be shut off without a key, to alert people the extinguisher has been handled by an unauthorized person if a fire is not present. This also alerts maintenance to check an extinguisher for usage so that it may be replaced if it has been used.