By Gregory Havel
Building and fire codes require the installation of fire extinguishers in the public areas of all buildings that are not single-family residences or that are not multi-family residences with each unit having its own means of egress. These codes usually incorporate most or all of the requirements of a specific edition National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 10, Portable Fire Extinguishers. References to NFPA 10 that follow are to the 2013 edition.
NFPA 10 includes the information needed to calculate the size of the fire extinguishers needed based on the level of hazard in the occupancy and the configuration of the spaces, the number of fire extinguishers needed, the maximum permitted travel distance to a portable fire extinguisher from any point on the floor, and the proper heights for fire extinguisher cabinets and hangers.
The location, size, and class of fire extinguishers may be calculated by the architect or fire protection engineer and included on the building’s blueprints. Or, these may be determined by the supplier of the fire extinguishers, cabinets, and hangers. In some jurisdictions, these are determined by the fire prevention bureau or fire inspector. The installation of the portable fire extinguishers may be done by a fire protection contractor or by the general contractor as the job nears completion. In any case, the fire prevention bureau or fire inspector must review fire extinguisher placement, travel distances, and hazard classifications before signing the occupancy permit for a new building or after remodeling.
NFPA 10 includes a table for determining the hazard class of the occupancy and the maximum area in square feet (square meters) that is allowed per unit of “A,” which also affects the number of portable extinguishers that will be needed (NFPA 10: 6.1.1). If the hazards include flammable liquids (Class B) or energized electrical equipment (Class C), additional fire extinguishers may be required; Class A units may be replaced with ABC dry chemical units, which can be used on any of these classes of fire.
Fire extinguishers must be conspicuously located and on exit paths from each floor or area of the building. If the view of the fire extinguisher is obstructed, signs must be posted near or above it so that it can be easily located (photo 1) (NFPA 10: 6.1.3).
(1) Photos by author.
Fire extinguishers must be hung from brackets (photo 2), set in recesses in the wall or located in cabinets (photo 3), and at heights that are determined by the weight of the extinguisher.
Fire extinguishers must be mounted so that the bottom of each unit is at least four inches (10.2 cm) above the finished floor to permit housekeeping with mops, brooms, vacuum cleaners, and floor cleaners without disturbing the unit (NFPA 10: 188.8.131.52). Also consider the following:
- Fire extinguishers with a gross weight less than or equal to 40 pounds (18.14 kg) must be installed so that the top of the unit is not more than five feet (1.53 m) above the floor.
- Fire extinguishers with a gross weight of more than 40 pounds (18.14 kg) (except wheeled units) must be installed so that the top of the fire extinguisher is not more than 3.5 feet (1.07 m) above the floor.
(At the Our Lady of the Angels School fire in Chicago, Illinois on December 1, 1958, the fire extinguishers were located high above the floor to prevent tampering by the students, which also put them out of easy access of most of the school teachers and staff.)
In most cases, the maximum travel distance to a portable fire extinguisher from anywhere on the floor, is 75 feet (22.9 m) (NFPA 10: 6.2.1). This distance is not intended to be in a straight line but to follow aisles between machines, shelving units, furniture, and other obstacles that may be located in the space. If the space is rearranged or remodeled in the future, additional portable fire extinguishers may need to be added to meet the maximum 75 feet travel distance requirement.
Persons inspecting and installing fire extinguishers do not have to be licensed and certified service technicians (NFPA 10: 184.108.40.206) provided that they follow the inspection and documentation procedure required by NFPA 10: 7.2.2 at the time of installation. Each portable fire extinguisher must adhere to the following:
- Be located in its proper place.
- Be of the proper size and class for that location and hazard.
- Have no obstruction to access or visibility.
- Have its pressure gauge or indicator in the operable range or position.
- Have its fullness determined by weighing or hefting.
- Have checked the condition of tires, wheels, carriage, hose, and nozzle for wheeled extinguishers.
- Use the push-to-test pressure indicator for nonrechargeable extinguishers.
- Have legible operating instructions on nameplates that face outward.
- Have unbroken safety seals or tamper indicators.
- Be examined for obvious physical damage, corrosion, leakage, or clogged nozzle.
- Have an inspection tag attached with the installation inspection information completed using a ballpoint pen or indelible marker (photos 4, 5).
- Include this information after installation of a new fire extinguisher: “New” and the date of installation, the name of the installing contractor, and the initials of the person performing the inspection.
The date of the installation and initial inspection is important to record, since it is this date from which the building owner or manager will determine when monthly inspections are due; and when annual and other interval service is due on each unit.
When fire extinguishers are shipped from the manufacturer, each unit is usually packaged with loose parts (i.e., a discharge hose that has to be connected), an owner’s manual, a printed warranty, an inspection tag, and one or more types of hanger brackets. The owner’s manual and warranty information are usually collected by the general contractor and turned over to the building’s owner or occupant. If the inspection tag is missing, a blank one may be printed from the NFPA Web site or from the insurance company Web site for use during the first year of occupancy.
Note that NFPA 10 in intended to be a minimum standard, and some jurisdictions may enforce requirements that are stricter than those in NFPA 10 such as requiring a license or certification to perform fire extinguisher inspections.
Although some jurisdictions may have codes that are less strict than NFPA 10, it is common for manufacturer’s warranties to state that installation must be completed according to the standard, or else the warranty will be void.
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Gregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 35 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.
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