Fire extinguishers are classed using a letter-symbol system which denotes the type of fire they are able to extinguish.
Class A: Ordinary combustibles
Class A fires consist of ordinary combustibles such as wood, paper, fabric, and most kinds of trash.
Class B/C: Flammable liquid and gas
These are fires whose fuel is flammable or combustible liquid or gas. The US system designates all such fires "Class B". In the European/Australian system, flammable liquids are designated "Class B", while burning gases are separately designated "Class C". These fires follow the same basic fire tetrahedron (heat, fuel, oxygen, chemical reaction) as ordinary combustible fires, except that the fuel in question is a flammable liquid such as gasoline, or gas such as natural gas. A solid stream of water should never be used to extinguish this type because it can cause the fuel to scatter, spreading the flames. The most effective way to extinguish a liquid or gas fueled fire is by inhibiting the chemical chain reaction of the fire, which is done by dry chemical and Halon extinguishing agents, although smothering with CO2 or, for liquids, foam is also effective. Halon has fallen out of favor in recent times because it is an ozone-depleting material; the Montreal Protocol declares that Halon should no longer be used. Chemicals such as FM-200 are now the recommended halogenated suppressant.
Class C or Class E: Electrical
Electrical fires are fires involving potentially energized electrical equipment. The US system designates these "Class C"; the Australian system designates them "Class E". This sort of fire may be caused by short-circuiting machinery or overloaded electrical cables. These fires can be a severe hazard to firefighters using water or other conductive agents, as electricity may be conducted from the fire, through water, to the firefighter's body, and then earth. Electrical shocks have caused many firefighter deaths.
Electrical fire may be fought in the same way as an ordinary combustible fire, but water, foam, and other conductive agents are not to be used. While the fire is or possibly could be electrically energized, it can be fought with any extinguishing agent rated for electrical fire. Carbon dioxide CO2, NOVEC 1230, FM-200 and dry chemical powder extinguishers such as PKP and even baking soda are especially suited to extinguishing this sort of fire. PKP should be a last resort solution to extinguishing the fire due to its corrosive tendencies. Once electricity is shut off to the equipment involved, it will generally become an ordinary combustible fire.
In Europe, "electrical fires" are no longer recognized as a separate class of fire as electricity itself cannot burn. The items around the electrical sources may burn. By turning the electrical source off, the fire can be fought by one of the other class of fire extinguishers.
Class D: Metal
With the exception of the metals that burn in contact with air or water (for example, sodium), masses of combustible metals do not represent unusual fire risks because they have the ability to conduct heat away from hot spots so efficiently that the heat of combustion cannot be maintained—this means that it will require a lot of heat to ignite a mass of combustible metal. Generally, metal fire risks exist when sawdust, machine shavings and other metal "fines" are present. Generally, these fires can be ignited by the same types of ignition sources that would start other common fires.
Water and other common firefighting materials can excite metal fires and make them worse. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that metal fires be fought with dry powder extinguishing agents. Dry powder agents work by smothering and heat absorption. The most common of these agents are sodium chloride granules and graphite powder. In recent years powdered copper has also come into use.
Some extinguishers are labeled as containing dry chemical extinguishing agents. This may be confused with dry powder. The two are not the same. Using a dry chemical extinguisher in error, in place of dry powder, can be ineffective or actually increase the intensity of a metal fire.
Metal fires represent a unique hazard because people are often not aware of the characteristics of these fires and are not properly prepared to fight them. Therefore, even a small metal fire can spread and become a larger fire in the surrounding ordinary combustible materials. Only dry powder should ever be used to extinguish a metal fire.
Class K or Class F: Cooking oils and fats (kitchen fires)
Class K fires involve unsaturated cooking oils in well-insulated cooking appliances located in commercial kitchens.
Fires that involve cooking oils or fats are designated "Class K" under the American system, and "Class F" under the European/Australasian systems. Though such fires are technically a subclass of the flammable liquid/gas class, the special characteristics of these types of fires, namely the higher flash point, are considered important enough to recognize separately. Watermist can be used to extinguish such fires. Appropriate fire extinguishers may also have hoods over them that help extinguish the fire. Sometimes fire blankets are used to stop a fire in a kitchen or on a stove.
- Fire Detection and Suppression Systems (Third ed.). Stillwater, OK: International Fire Service Training Association. 2005. p. 9. ISBN 0-87939-267-3. OCLC 62785313.
- Fire Detection and Suppression Systems (Third ed.). Stillwater, OK: International Fire Service Training Association. 2005. p. 10. ISBN 0-87939-267-3. OCLC 62785313.
- Classification of Portable Fire Extinguishers, Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- Evacuation Plans and Procedures eTool, Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- Information on Fire Extinguishers, The Fire Safety Advice Centre
- For Fire Extinguishers, Wollongong Extinguisher Service-Australia