Over the past 100 years, fire extinguishers have proven to be crucial to a balanced fire protection program. When accessible, maintained, and used properly, fire extinguishers play a significant role in a complete life safety system. As the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) standard for portable fire extinguishers states: “Portable fire extinguishers are intended as a first line of defense to cope with fires of limited size. They are needed even if the property is equipped with automatic sprinklers, standpipe, and hose or other fixed equipment,” (NFPA 10, Sec. 1-1).
When combined, fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems provide buildings with a high success rate in saving lives and reducing property damage. “I’m very pro-sprinkler, but when you’re talking about fire safety, you can’t have just one line of protection. If we’re depending on a sprinkler system to function and it fails, people will be at considerably more risk,” says Don Bliss, New Hampshire state fire marshal, president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals, Concord, NH.
Fire extinguishers may preclude the operation of an automatic sprinkler system, and at times may result in a fire being contained or extinguished before the fire department arrives. According to the Oklahoma City-based National Fire Information Council’s National Fire Incident Reporting System’s statistics for 1991-1995, fire extinguishers were credited with extinguishing fires more than any other method listed on an annual basis.
A real-life demonstration of the importance of fire extinguishers occurred in May 2003, during a Cinco de Mayo party outside of Spokane, WA. Disaster was averted when a fire broke out in a crowded nightclub. A club employee grabbed a readily accessible fire extinguisher and put out the fire before it spread. “It could have been a catastrophe. The place was packed … that drives home the point of why we require extinguishers – they were able to knock down the fire before we even got to that point,” stated Dan Cochran, deputy fire chief, Coeur D’Alene, ID (The Spokesman Review, May 10, 2003).
Taking into account the nation’s increased focus on security, fire safety systems have to be able to respond quickly to a variety of threats. A major incident in any community could prevent the fire department from meeting normal response goals, increasing the potential for damage or loss of life. In addition, water supplies that are critical for proper sprinkler operation may be compromised. In these scenarios, it is imperative for individuals to be able to prevent fires from growing in order to prevent tragedies – something that can be done with the use of fire extinguishers.
A balanced fire protection plan, including detectors, alarms, fire extinguishers, fire extinguishing systems (sprinklers and hoses), and proper signage, combined with appropriate fire safety education, is the best way to ensure that when a fire does break out, losses are kept to a minimum.
Just as you wouldn’t purchase a car with only airbags and not seat belts, neither should we neglect the necessity of extinguishers in the fire safety chain. Redundancy in fire protection is a must. Fire protection cannot be an “either-or” proposition.
John J. McSheffrey Jr. is the vice president, Business Development at MIJA Inc. (www.mija.com), based in Rockland, MA.