Fire Safety FAQs

October 1st, 2010 by Alyssa Giacobbe

Experts answer your most hot-button questions.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

From an education in extinguishers to how you can assist firefighters trying to save your home, we asked fire fighters and safety experts to identify and answer homeowners’ most common fire safety questions.

What’s the difference between fireproof versus fire resistant?

“Fireproof” and “fire resistant” are often used interchangeably, but have different meanings. Fire resistant simply means that the item will burn at a much slower rate, providing extra time to escape. Fireproof materials are designed not to burn at all. The fact, however, is that everything burns when exposed to high levels of heat. “When you’re facing a 1,500-degree flame, your best bet is to just get out of there as fast as you can,” says Kevin Kleinworth, Deputy Fire Chief for Nye County, Nevada. “All the fire-resistant pajamas in the world won’t keep you from getting hurt if you’re caught in a house fire.” Deborah Hanson, director of external affairs for the First Alert line of home and fire safety systems, suggests consumers protect their valuable documents and other papers by invest in a fire-resistant safe that’s been tested by Underwriters Laboratories or another nationally recognized testing lab. A good fire-resistant safe will maintain an interior temperature of no more than 350 degrees Fahrenheit in heat up to 1,700 degrees.

What kind of extinguisher should I buy and where should I keep it?

Class A extinguishers put out fires in ordinary combustible materials such as cloth, wood, rubber, paper and many plastics. Class B extinguishers are used on fires involving flammable liquids, such as grease, gasoline, oil and oil-based paints. Class C extinguishers are suitable for use on fires involving appliances, tools or other equipment that is electrically energized or plugged in. Class K fire extinguishers are intended for use on fires that involve vegetable oils, animal oils or fats in cooking appliances; these extinguishers are generally found in commercial kitchens, such as those found in restaurants, cafeterias and caterers. Class K extinguishers are now finding their way into the residential market for use in kitchens.

There are also multipurpose fire extinguishers - such as those labeled "B-C" or "A-B-C" - that can be used on two or more of the above type fires. The most versatile is an ABC extinguisher, which will cover class A combustibles like paper and clothing, class B combustibles like gas, and class C electrical fires. Buy the largest one you feel comfortable handling. Every house should have at least three fire extinguishers, and more if you’ve got more than two bedrooms, says Mark Lerer, a volunteer firefighter in Spring Valley, New York. Keep one in the kitchen; one in the basement, garage, shop, or wherever you may store paints or chemicals; and one in each bedroom. And before you stash them away, learn how to use it. Read the users’ manual. Every fire extinguisher has limitations. The use of a fire extinguisher in the hands of a trained adult can be a life and property saving tool. However, a majority of adults have not had fire extinguisher training and may not know how and when to use them. Fire extinguisher use requires a sound decision making process and training on their proper use and maintenance. Do not test the extinguisher by discharging even a little agent. It may allow the remaining pressure to drain away, making the fire extinguisher nothing more than a fancy door holder.

Are there any special techniques I should use to put out a small fire in my home?

Portable fire extinguishers are valuable for immediate use on small fires. They contain a limited amount of extinguishing material and need to be properly used so that this material is not wasted. For example, when a pan initially catches fire, it may be safe to turn off the burner, place a lid on the pan, and use an extinguisher. By the time the fire has spread, however, these actions will not be adequate. Only trained firefighters can safely extinguish such fires.

Use a fire extinguisher only if:

- You have alerted other occupants and someone has called the fire department;

- The fire is small and contained to a single object, such as a wastebasket;

- You are safe from the toxic smoke produced by the fire;

- You have a means of escape identified and the fire is not between you and the escape route; and

- Your instincts tell you that it is safe to use an extinguisher.

Spray at the base of the fire, using a sweeping motion. It’s fairly straightforward, and most kids over the age of six can handle at least a small extinguisher. “Remember the P.A.S.S. system,” offers Hanson. “PULL the pin, AIM the extinguisher at the base of the fire, SQUEEZE the handle or trigger, and SWEEP from side to side.” Kleinworth adds that you can always bring your extinguisher to your local fire department and ask if there’s a firefighter who’ll show you how to use it. The station may also refer you to any classes on extinguisher operation in your area.

If there’s a fire at my house, how can I make the firefighters’ job easier?

One of the best things you and your family can do for a firefighter is to evacuate, of course, says Lerer. If you have the chance to safely turn off the power in your house before you leave, do that--but make sure your family and pets (if possible) are already out and safe. It’s helpful if you can tell the firefighters where the nearest hydrant is, or if you have a pool -- which also may be used, just in case. Make sure that your house number is always visible, both during the day and after dark. “And most importantly,” says Hanson, “never return inside the house for any reason.” If someone is missing, inform the fire department dispatcher when you call. Firefighters have the skills and equipment to perform rescues.

How else can I protect myself?

Pay as much attention to your exterior as to your interior, says Kleinworth. In urban areas, fires can spread rapidly from one house to the next. If you keep a woodpile, make sure it’s not too close to your neighbor’s property. Make sure your trees don’t overhang into another person’s yard, or touch their house. If you’ve got a wooden deck, don’t run it too close to your neighbor’s land. Radiant heat can cause fire. Also, suggests Hanson, take the time to document your property with photographs or a video camera, and keep the pictures and DVD in a different location from your house. Fire can devastate your life and cause you to lose everything, and this small step can come in handy if you ever need to make an insurance claim.