Who is responsible for using a fire extinguisher

Fire safety

Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 which covers general fire safety for England and Wales, it is the responsibility of the Responsible Person to appoint competent persons for fire safety functions and to ensure their employees receive adequate training, refresher training and development. This includes fire protection and prevention awareness, elements of the fire triangle, types of fires and relevant fire extinguishing equipment, and how to use the fire equipment effectively.

Who is responsible for using a fire extinguisher?

Anyone can use a fire extinguisher when used as a first aid firefighting appliance – this simply means when used for escape purposes, for instance when evacuating a building and the exit route is blocked by fire, an extinguisher can be used to subdue, control or even extinguish the fire in order to exit the building. In this instance, the operative can look at the instructions and operate the extinguisher without training.

When we ask staff members such as fire marshals to investigate and confirm fires, they will be using the extinguisher as a firefighting appliance, for which they need to have had the appropriate training.

When do you use a fire extinguisher?

  • After the fire alarm has been raised and the building/area evacuation has commenced
  • The fire is in its very early stages, small in size, contained, and only requires one fire extinguisher
  • The fire does not involve electrics or is not near live electrical equipment, unless using an extinguisher with the electrical lightning bolt symbol on the label showing it has been tested for use on this type of fire
  • The room is not full of smoke
  • You have the correct extinguisher for the type of fire
  • You are one metre from the fire (do not move forward unless it is safe to do so)
  • Emergency services have been called

When do you not use a fire extinguisher?

  • The fire is too big or would require more than one fire extinguisher
  • Fires involving escaping gases or high voltage electrics
  • There are high levels of smoke
  • The area is too hot

Types of fire extinguishers

There are several types of fire extinguishers and each one has a specific use depending on the type of fire.

The five main types of fire extinguisher are:

  • Water – used for flammable solids such as wood, paper, and textiles as the water has a cooling effect
  • Foam – used for flammable solids (as above), flammable liquids (petroleum products, paints, solvents and thinners), and liquefiable solids (such as wax, butter, tar, and car tyres although the water content in a foam extinguisher may cause these to split and powder may be more appropriate)
  • Dry powder* – used on Classes A, B, and C, and electrical type fires where Class C is flammable gases (butane, propane, and acetylene for example), however the gas should always be isolated first. Dry powder extinguishers work by smothering the fire
  • CO2 – used for Class B flammable liquids and electrical fires. As an asphyxiant, CO2 suffocates the fire so extreme care should be taken if using in a confined space such as a cupboard – ensure the exit doorway is held open, empty the extinguisher into the cupboard space from the door, and shut the door
  • Wet chemical – used for Class F fires; specifically fires involving cooking oils and fats but, most can commonly also be used on Class A and B. Wet chemical extinguishers are commonly found in kitchens with deep fat fryers (commercial kitchens with fryers exceeding 0.4sqm will also require a fixed suppression system)

Some specialist extinguishers are available for common and specialist fires such as D type powders for flammable metals. These should only be used by trained personnel.

*In 2012 the recommendations for dry powder extinguisher use indoors changed:

“The discharge of a powder extinguisher within buildings can cause a sudden reduction of visibility and can also impair breathing, which could temporarily jeopardize escape, rescue or other emergency action. For this reason, powder extinguishers should generally not be specified for use indoors unless mitigated by a health and safety risk assessment.” (BS 5306-8:2012 5.4.3)

Non-Compliant Extinguishers

There is much controversy over some extinguishers found within some buildings which may be in part or as a whole non-compliant under BS 5306. Although non-compliant, these extinguishers in general are still fit for purpose. For instance, a chrome or brass unit fails to comply with BS 5306-10 colour coding but does comply with all other parts of the standard. Other extinguishers such as water mist extinguishers, Lithex, and P50s do not comply as the standard has not yet been updated to accommodate these newer technologies or classes of fire. In this instance it may be advisable to consult with the insurer of the building for clarification.

Lithex extinguishers are designed for portable lithium ion batteries (laptops, phones and tools) however, this class of fire currently does not exist, whereas a P50 is a 10 year life extinguisher which is maintained by the Responsible Person annually and therefore does not comply with BS 5306-3 for service and maintenance.

Where to put fire extinguishers?

The BS 5306 calculation formula can be used to establish the number of extinguishers required for the floor footprint.

For example: how many Class A water fire extinguishers are required for a 1200m2­­ floor footprint?

The basic calculation for siting fire extinguishers is given in this example:

The fire rating is found by multiplying the floor area in metres squared by 0.065

The floor space dimension is 30m x 40m, giving 1200m2

1200mx 0.065 = fire rating of 78

The basic 6L water fire extinguisher has a rating of 13A

78 ÷ 13 = 6

So, 6 x 6L water fire extinguishers would be required for the floor space and the travel distance should be no more than 30 metres in any direction to locate a Class A fire extinguisher.

However, if the floor footprint/premises consists of or has a high hazardous area, there is a likelihood that more fire extinguishers for that area and class of fire would need to be installed. For instance, for a Class B or Class F risk, the extinguisher should be within 10m of that specific risk.

Fire extinguishers are usually sited in pairs, and generally located in escape routes i.e. corridors, stairways, landing, lobbies, etc. Each fire extinguisher location should display a 'fire extinguisher type' sign that explains the content and class of fire. If the location is not evident i.e. in a recess or behind a column, a ‘fire extinguisher location point' sign should also be used, and for extinguishers greater than 4L, the fire extinguisher handle must be located up to 1 metre above the ground. For smaller fire extinguishers, this height can be up to 1.5 metres. If the fire extinguisher cannot be mounted on a wall, then a display unit can be used.



How often should fire extinguishers be replaced according to regulations?

Fire extinguishers are an integral part of the fire safety provisions within any building used as business premises and are subject to maintenance and service requirements in accordance with BS5306-3. To ensure that fire extinguishers are in good working order, they first must have a commissioning service, then an annual basic service, and an extended service or be replaced every five years. The exception to the five-year replacement is CO2 fire extinguishers which should be replaced every 10 years.

If an extinguisher is damaged or unable to be used safely, it should be replaced immediately. If the fire extinguisher has been discharged, it is to be recharged or replaced and the used fire extinguisher returned to the supplier or service contractor for refilling and re-issuing.

Are fire extinguishers a legal requirement?

By law and fire safety legislation, the Responsible Person must carry out or arrange a fire risk assessment for the business premises. As part of this fire risk assessment, appropriate fire detection and firefighting equipment will be required for the premises, and fire extinguishers come under this equipment. To remain compliant with the current British Standard (BS 5306-3), fire extinguishers must be serviced every year. It is up to the Responsible Person to ensure fire extinguishers are easily accessible on the premises and a sufficient number of people are trained to use them.

For more information about our fire extinguisher training courses, please click here.