Civilian Use of Portable Fire Extinguishers

THE QUESTION OF WHETHER UNTRAINED CIVILIANS should use portable fire extinguishers has been marked by ongoing debate. The positions range from objections to the use of fire extinguishers by untrained people, on one hand, to the need for early intervention to minimize the impact of a fire, on the other hand.

What brought the issue of civilian use of fire extinguishers to light for the Haddon Heights (NJ) Fire Department was the State Legislature of New Jersey’s amendment of the Public Law for Smoke Detector (1991) and the Carbon Monoxide (2004) law in March 2005. The amended laws mandate that, in addition to smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, a portable fire extinguisher should be mounted in the area of the kitchen. The law defines a portable fire extinguisher as follows:

Portable fire extinguisher means an operable portable device, carried and operated by hand, containing an extinguishing agent that can be expelled under pressure for the purpose of suppressing or extinguishing a fire, and which is: (1) rated for residential use consisting of an ABC type; (2) no larger than a 10-pound rated extinguisher, and (3) mounted within 10 feet of the kitchen area, unless otherwise permitted by the enforcing agency …. (2/25/2004, State of New Jersey P.L. 2005, c.71)

The law stipulates that prior to any transfer of property ownership or change of occupancy, a certificate shall be issued stating that the space or structure has met the requirements of the law related to the installation of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and the installation of a portable fire extinguisher. However, the amended law does not address requirements or recommendations for training the new occupant in the use or maintenance of the extinguisher.


Our society upholds the ideal of self-preservation. Tied closely to this ideal is the need to provide for the security and safety of those in our charge. There are many examples of how family, friends, and even strangers put the safety and security of others ahead of their own in an emergency. Civilians’ inability to adequately identify exigent situations and recognize when dangerous situations are beyond their skill and ability create circumstances resulting in civilian injury, delays in reporting alarms, delays in evacuation, and ultimately death to civilians and well-advanced fire conditions that compromise the safety of the firefighting community. Therefore, civilians should be taught how to recognize and react to an emergency to ensure the safety of the people taking the actions and those they are attempting to protect.

The most critical element of fire-related human behavior is to recognize that the event is threatening. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), most people have little or no experience in dealing with a hostile fire and will have “to rely on other sources of information and experience to identify the nature of the situation and manage their response.”1

Relating this “inexperience” of the public to the use of a portable fire extinguisher is important. We see in NFPA 10, Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers, 2002, the need for fully training those entrusted with using these devices:

Portable fire extinguishers are appliances to be used principally by the occupants of a fire-endangered building or area who are familiar with the location and operation of the extinguisher through education or training. Portable fire extinguishers are primarily of value for immediate use on small fires. They have a limited quantity of extinguishing material and, therefore, need to be used properly so that this material is not wasted.

The not-for-profit Underwriters Laboratories (UL) developed Standard UL 711, Standard for Safety Rating and Fire Testing of Fire Extinguishers, seventh edition, 2004, for rating and testing fire extinguishers. Experienced personnel conduct the tests. The operator of the extinguisher is to be protected against heat by wearing a safety helmet with a heat-resistant face guard, a long coat, and gloves. A self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), or the equivalent, is recommended.

If the fire extinguisher is to achieve the purpose for which it is intended, it must be properly installed and maintained. The NFPA recommends that the extinguisher be within easy access of adults, be in good working order, be located near exits, and be checked monthly to ensure it is operable.

A nonoperating fire extinguisher could lead to a fire’s growing out of control, which could result in property damage, injuries, or death. It is critical that occupants read the instructions and become familiar with the extinguisher before the fire breaks out. Although the fire extinguisher can be an effective fire safety tool, the primary objective in a fire is a safe escape.2

Successfully using a portable fire extinguisher depends on several factors. First is that the operator knows how to use the extinguisher; there is no time to read instructions during a fire emergency. The extinguisher should be light enough so that the operator can lift it and rated for the type of fire being fought. Using the wrong size and type of extinguisher puts the operator in additional danger. The extinguisher needs to be large enough to extinguish the fire.3 The decision to fight a fire rests with the individual, who must consider personal safety first and, almost equally as important, the safety of others.


Some questions to be considered in the decision-making process may include the following: Has everyone been evacuated? Has the fire department been called? Is the fire confined to a small area, or is it spreading? Is my back to a means of egress through which I can easily escape if the levels of heat and smoke are low enough to permit me to safely operate the extinguisher? Is the fire of an incipient nature?

Unless all of these questions can be appropriately answered, the individual should leave immediately, close off the area to slow the spread of fire and smoke, and wait for the fire department to arrive. Some occupants of a building on fire use a number of intervention methods to attack the fire before the fire department arrives.

The portable fire extinguisher is one method of intervention. Occupants may use other makeshift, or first-aid, means such as buckets of water or sand, a garden hose, or a smothering approach. “Some fires are extinguished or controlled by first-aid means. An initial attack by occupants reduces the severity of a fire, but there have been some instances in which an action has led to a fatal or nonfatal casualty.”4 In fact, according to the NFPA, “Two-fifths of nonfatal home fire injury victims were trying to fight the fire or rescue someone when they were injured.”5

People process information and actively interpret it on the basis of their knowledge of the world and previous experiences, which are unlikely to include rare events such as emergencies.6 Dr. Guylene Proulz, of the National Research Council of Canada, cites three reasons that make the process of decision making during a fire different from making everyday decisions: (1) More is at stake because of the nature of a fire, (2) the information and experience on which to base a decision are limited, and (3) the time to make a decision is limited. He adds: “If a person already has a plan of action well thought through and discussed and practiced with family members, decisions will be much easier to make. Education and training are key.” (1,115) According to Proulz, fear or tenseness does not prevent a person from thinking and making decisions. (1, 115)

Naturalistic Decision Making

A new theory of decision making called “Naturalistic Decision Making” (NDM) attempts to explain the strategies people use for solving problems in real-world situations. NDM emphasizes the features of complex tasks and the knowledge and experience of the decision maker. The manner in which the decision maker mentally represents the features of such tasks is referred to as “situational awareness.” The occupant bases decisions for satisfying exigencies as they present themselves through situational awareness and his dependence on perception and experience to define the problem and construct solutions. (1, 205) The NDM theory is replacing the classic decision-making paradigms, developed by experimental psychologists, that explained analytical approaches to solving problems.

Steps of Decision Making in Emergencies

Researchers have identified four steps of decision making in emergencies; they are related to the level of stress at a given time. (1, 195) These mechanisms must be applied on a case-by-case basis in a fire. The criteria are as follows:

  • Unconflicted inertia. The credibility of the initial source of information is assessed to see if the environmental cues indicate the existence of an immediate threat that might impact the occupant’s welfare. (1, 195)
  • Unconflicted change. The occupant starts to believe a threat exists and becomes more emotionally aroused. At this point, the occupant’s level of stress is still low and there is sufficient time to permit adequate analysis of information.
  • Defensive avoidance. The person’s level of stress becomes more intense, and distortions in the decision-making process can increase. The time factor also becomes an issue for the occupant. At this point, the occupant is likely to decide to exit if he has not already made that decision. (1, 195)
  • Hypervigilance. Occupants’ vigilance will remain active as long as they believe they can still reach safety. As the situation deteriorates and the occupant tries to exit, the stress level will increase. (1, 195)

Fire safety researchers define human behavior in fires as episodic in nature, where occupants display a variety of action sequences. Usually, each episode has an identifiable goal and a number of actions associated with the goal. Although the occupant’s decision process in going from one episode to the next (fight the fire, evacuate, investigate, and so on), it is important to investigate. The decisions regarding how each individual episode of behavior is executed is of equal importance. For example, when an occupant decides to alert others, he must also determine the method of notification. When an occupant decides to evacuate, he must also decide which route should be used. (1, 192)


The records contain examples of incidents in which individuals’ efforts to attempt to control fires with extinguishers were inadequate or improper for the conditions encountered.7 In one case, workmen reportedly attempted to put out with extinguishers a fire in a Masonic temple before notifying the fire department. An employee of the temple noted that three extinguishers had no effect on the fire.8

In a condominium kitchen fire in Clearwater, Florida, at approximately 0500 hours on June 28, 2002, the adult occupant of the unit attempted to fight the fire with portable fire extinguishers before summoning the fire department. According to a U.S. Fire Administration report, “The delayed alarm resulted in the death of two occupants of the building and injury to five Clearwater firefighters, which included serious burns to one firefighter that required over three months of recovery.”9


Based on my research, I offer the following recommendations pertaining to civilians’ use of fire extinguishers:

1. Educate occupants about portable fire extinguishers.

-Let them know a certified extinguisher has been installed in their building.
-Advise them of its location.
-Make them aware of the vital role the extinguisher can play in a fire emergency.
-Train potential users of the extinguisher in its operation before an emergency arises.
-The education mechanism needs to be woven into the legislation that requires the installation of the portable fire extinguisher.

2. Amend legislation (in New Jersey) mandating portable fire extinguishers in residential occupancies so that it includes provisions for educating occupants in their use and the maintenance needed to ensure the extinguishers will be in working order when needed. Stakeholders (legislators, fire service representatives, realtors associations, homeowners associations, and a representative of the fire extinguisher industry) should work to ensure that the legislation contains requirements on training, installation, maintenance, and use of the extinguishers as proposed in NFPA 10. (At the time of my research, New Jersey was the only state with this type of legislation on a statewide level. Some municipalities had similar local requirements.)

3. Local fire departments should address the shortcomings of the legislation. One way to do this is to develop welcome packets for new occupants in properties transferring ownership. The packet could include a welcome letter introducing the fire department and describing its mission statement and a letter or flyer containing general information on the use and maintenance of portable fire extinguishers.

Fire departments can develop an extinguisher training program, consistent with NFPA 10, and address the shortcomings of the state’s amended smoke detector, carbon monoxide, and fire extinguisher law, if the state has one.

4. Initiate a special study through the U.S. Fire Administration NFIRS 5.0 reporting system. In New Jersey, the study could be enacted through the New Jersey State Division of Fire Safety, which has personnel assigned to manage the data created by the reporting fire departments in that state. This study will enable the local fire departments to catalog the use of portable fire extinguishers by civilians. Some categories within the special study could be the following: frequency of use, the success and failure rates, the frequency of occurrences, injuries sustained by the user or other occupants, delay in fire department notification, and firefighter injuries related to the use of the extinguisher. The data could be compiled and used to evaluate the impact of the amended law.

. . .

The review of current and relevant literature indicates that the use of portable fire extinguishers by trained citizens could delay the growth of fire. However, there is also evidence that untrained civilians who used a portable extinguisher delayed reporting the fire to the fire department, which has resulted in firefighter and civilian deaths and injuries and increased property damage.


1. “Human Behavior in Fire Emergencies,” National Fire Protection Agency Ready Reference, 2003, 412.

2. “Steps to Safely Use A Fire Extinguisher,” Laura Coyne, Family Safety and Health, Spring 2003, 62:1, 22-23.

3. Fire in Your Home, National Fire Protection Association, 2005, 40-45.

4. Ramachandran, G., The Economics of Fire Protection. (N.Y.: Routledge, 1998), 85.

5. Hall Jr., John. Characteristics of Home Fire Victims. National Fire Protection Association, 2005, 90).

6. Fogarty, Julia, Behavior in Emergencies, Great Britain Home Office Emergency Planning College, September 1996, 4.

7. Robertson, C. James, Brady Introduction to Fire Prevention, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall Inc., 1995).

8. “Delayed Alarm Held Cause of Fire Extension at Atlanta,” Staff Report, Fire Engineering, November 1950, 896.

9. Cook, L., et al. “Multiple Fatality High Rise Condominium Fire, Clearwater Florida.” U.S. Fire Administration, (USFA-TR-148), June 28, 2002.

Additional References

Aherns, Marty. Selections from U.S. Fires in Selected Occupancies Homes, National Fire Protection Agency, Quincy, Mass., March 2006.

“Death Certificates Report Fire Extinguishers.” Consumer Product Safety Commission. January 2001-May 2006.

“Incident Investigations Fire Extinguishers.” Consumer Product Safety Commission. January 2001-May 2006.

Reported Incidents Fire Extinguishers. Consumer Product Safety Commission. January 2001-May 2006.

“Removing Doubt,” Suzanne Donovan, Fire Prevention Fire Engineers Journal, August 2005, 37.

“Firefighter Fatality Report,” New Jersey Dept. of Community Affairs, April 1993.

“U.S. Experience with Sprinklers and Other Fire Extinguishing Equipment,” Kimberly, D. Rohr, August 2005.

“Is a Fire Extinguisher Enough?” The Home Fireman. Fire Facts from the Experts. http://www.thehome Retrieved April 17, 2006.

“Delay in Alarm Allows Fire Spread-Massachusetts,” Kenneth J. Tremblay, NFPA Journal; July/August 2002, 96:4, 18.

“Delay in Alarm Contributes to Building Loss, Kenneth J. Tremblay, NFPA Journal; July/August 1998, 92:4, 20-21.

FRANK LAFFERTY JR. is assistant chief of the Haddon Heights (NJ) Fire Department, where he has served for the past 18 years. He is a level II New Jersey state fire instructor and an adjunct instructor at Camden County College, through the Camden County Fire Academy. This article is a summary of an applied research project prepared as part of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy.

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