Using a Fire Extinguisher

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2012 • all rights reserved


Learn how to use your fire extinguisher BEFORE you need it -- it's five minutes that could save your life some day!

In 2004, we were in a marina in La Paz when all of a sudden the man on the boat next to us yells out “Do you have a fire extinguisher?  I need it fast!!”  He had an electrical fire and was so flustered that he couldn’t remember how to use his (forgot to pull the pin) and thought it wasn’t working.

Before you ever have an emergency, make sure that you have plenty of fire extinguishers on board.  There’s no specific number that you need, but there should be one in every sleeping area, in the engine compartment or just outside it (and if you can access the engine from two sides — such as the lazarette and the saloon — there should be one on each side), one in the galley and in any other major areas.  You want to make sure that you’ll never be trapped by a fire and not have an extinguisher at hand.

Then, make sure you know how each mounting bracket works.  Don’t just look at it, actually take the extinguisher out and replace it.  We discovered that several of our brackets worked extremely hard and needed some lubrication.  Had we not taken them out, we wouldn’t have known.

And finally, how to use them (almost all work the same way, but check the instructions on yours just to be sure).  I deliberately didn’t include photos as your fire extinguishers are likely to be different from mine — and each of mine is slightly different from the others.

  • Pull the pin.  You almost always have to break some sort of seal so that it doesn’t accidentally come out.  Further, the pin can be hard to pull, so be sure to have a good grip on the extinguisher so it doesn’t slip out of your hand and into an inaccessible place.
  • Aim the nozzle at the base of the flames.  You need to put out what’s burning, not spray the flames.  Try to get the foam within 6 inches from the burning material.  You can stand back further if needed, but get the foam as directly on the flaming material as possible.
  • Squeeze the handle to spray the foam.
  • Sweep back and forth over the fire to put foam over the entire burning surface.

A regular size fire extinguisher only has about 10 seconds of spray, so have it in the correct spot before squeezing the handle so you don’t waste any of it.  If possible, take extinguishers from other locations or even other boats if needed to put out the fire completely.  Most people are shocked at how quickly a fire extinguisher is empty!

Three other tips:  (1) try to always keep an exit at your back in case the fire becomes too large and you have to evacuate; (2) even if the fire appears to be out, keep a close eye on it as you’re cleaning up and for several hours afterwards in case it reignites; and (3) have the extinguishers recharged or buy new ones as soon as possible.

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  1. We had a boat fire once. It was in the galley. We had an alcohol stove that needed refueling so I could make my morning tea. I refilled, spilled a little, then set the jug aside on the counter. Lighting the stove not only lit what was spilled, but the flame traveled the counter and up the jug, ending in a big WOOSH of pretty blue flame. My wife was sleeping at the time, and the noise woke her up to the site of pretty blue flame and burning curtains dancing over her head. After I snapped out of the initial shock I hosed everything down with the fire extinguisher, making one hell of a mess, and a white powdery cloud billowing out of the boat. We were lucky. The ironic part of all this was that I was in a hurry to get to fire suppression training at the fire station down the street.

    Cleanup was brutal, as there was white powder everywhere.

  2. I’ve never actually had to use one but they seem easy enough

  3. We practice with an old one every now and then. Also pretend to have fires and see reaction of crew.

  4. And be sure to take the dry chemical ones out of their brackets every few months and shake them up.

  5. We practiced with our expired rv camper and boat extinguishers. Thankful I got “hands on” practice.

  6. Good advice.

  7. When using the fire extinguisher for the first time, especially one you have never used before – do not point it at the fire and pull the trigger – Do a test blast away from the fire to see how forceful the blast may be and the reaction of the extinguisher in your hands… then sneak up on the fire by point the blast just below the base of the fire and wave the extinguisher back and forth until you reach the base. If it has spread continue to wave the blast back and forth until the fire is out. Never point the blast directly at an oil pan fire as the oil will be forced out. Always sneak up on it waving the blast back and forth until you reach the pan, that way the oil doesn’t jump out of the pan. Craig Stewart, Canadian Power and Sail Squadron, Ashbridge’s Bay Squadron Training Officer

    • Phil Dicicco says:

      THANK YOU! And yes, I meant to yell that. Thanx for passing the tip on “sneeking up on it”. You CAN and WILL blow the oil out of the pan onto everything, causing a much bigger fire. be safe, the rat.

  8. I can 🙂

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