Fire extinguishers – do you know your foam from your powder? Why getting it right could save lives!

When it comes to recommending the right fire extinguisher, knowing which type is best for which kind of fire is potentially life-saving.

Although the number of fires in the UK has decreased significantly since smoke alarms became commonplace from the 1990s onwards, Fire and rescue services (FRSs) attended around 162,000 fires in England during 2015/16. This is 5% more than the 155,000 attended in 2014/15 (Department for Communities and Local Government’s Fire Statistics report.)

From a workplace perspective, retail units, cafes, bars, restaurants and manufacturing sites accounted for many of the 22,000 out of home fires attended by the fire services in 2013-14. These non-residential fires resulted in over 1,000 non-fatal casualties and 17 fatal casualties in 2013-14, making advice on fire safety equipment particularly critical to these end-user groups.

The type of extinguisher to use depends on what materials are involved in a fire. With the chief causes of fire including kitchen, heating and electrical equipment, those materials may include hot oils, flammable gasses, solid materials or computers. Each of these needs the right type of extinguisher to be treated successfully and ensure minimum damage to equipment.

All fire safety equipment should be accredited for BS/EN3 and carry the BSI Kite Mark. Extinguishers should be serviced at least annually by a competent person, unless the product is maintenance free, and potential users should be trained on the equipment when it is installed.

In the event of fire, people should always evacuate the premises and call the fire brigade. However if there is a very small fire at an early stage that is considered controllable, it may be possible for a trained user to tackle it with an extinguisher, if he or she is near to an escape route and has no doubts about using the equipment.

Here are the five main types of fire extinguisher and their recommended uses:

  1. Foam

Suitable for fires involving solid materials such as wood, paper or textiles, or for fires involving liquids such as petrol, oil, paint or grease.

Foam extinguishers are not suitable for fires involving flammable gasses or electrical fires involving electrical equipment.

  1. Powder

BC and ABC powder extinguishers are suitable for fires involving liquids, flammable gasses or electrical equipment.

BC powder extinguishers are only suited to fires involving solid materials on a very small surface area, whereas ABC powder extinguishers have a rapid knockdown effect on fires involving solid materials, preventing re-ignition.

  1. Water

Water extinguishers are suitable for fires involving solid materials such as wood, paper or soft furnishings, where they can have a good cooling effect and prevent re-ignition.

Water extinguishers should not be used on fires involving liquids such as fats, petrol, solvents or grease. They are also not suitable for use on fires involving flammable gasses or electrical equipment.

  1. Carbon dioxide (CO₂)

Carbon dioxide extinguishers are suitable for use on fires involving live electrical equipment such as computers, but care should be taken using them in confined spaces.

They are also suitable for fires involving solid materials but only on very small surface fires. They can also be used for fires involving liquids where they create a rapid knockdown effect that leaves no residue.

Carbon dioxide extinguishers are not suitable for use on fires involving flammable gasses.

  1. Fire blankets

These are recommended for kitchens in domestic, business and light industrial environments where there may be a risk of a person’s clothes or a cooking pan catching fire. Some experts believe fire blankets are the best option as these can help to smother the flames, whereas pressurised substances could inadvertently help to spread burning oil or other liquids.

Users should never lift up a fire blanket after use or attempt to carry a pan out of a kitchen as this may cause the fire to reignite or help to spread it. All fire blankets should be kite marked and have been tested and certified to BS/EN 1869-1997.


Although this information is provided to the best of our knowledge at the time of publication, detailed advice should be sought from the appropriate experts and full training given on fire safety equipment before installation.

By Laura at 3 May 2017, 11:51 AM