by Mac McCoy
Without question, the first rule of RV firefighting is to save lives first and property second. Your priority is to get your family safely out of the RV and then, if you can do so without endangering yourself or others, use the firefighting aids available to you.
To be most effective at fighting a fire, you must know the purposes and limitations of your equipment, as well as how to properly maintain and use it. Don’t wait until a fire breaks out to try to figure out what to do. Take your extinguisher out now and have a look at it to make sure you’re prepared to use it if the time ever comes. The time you save could mean the difference between minor damage and major disaster.
The Parts of a Fire Extinguisher
Most portable fire extinguishers for home use consist of six main parts you should be familiar with. Figure A depicts a portable fire extinguisher with the following parts identified.
Cylinder: This is the body of the extinguisher. It is pressurized and holds some combination of extinguishing agent and expellant gas.
Handle: This is nothing more than a grip for carrying or holding the extinguisher. The type of handle design may vary according to the manufacturer. Lifting an extinguisher by the handle will not cause the unit to discharge.
Trigger: This is usually a short lever mounted above the handle at the top of the extinguisher, although some units differ. The unit will discharge when you squeeze the trigger.
Nozzle: This is at the top of the extinguisher where the extinguishing agent is expelled and often has a hose attached.
Pressure Gauge (Figure B): The effective range of an extinguisher and its ability to expel all of its agent both decrease as pressure drops. Check the pressure of your extinguisher on a regular basis. Have it recharged if pressure drops below normal operating level.
Locking Mechanism: All portable fire extinguishers must come with some type of locking mechanism to prevent accidental discharge. The mechanism must be removed or released for the extinguisher to work.
Fire Extinguisher Markings
It is essential that the type of fire extinguisher you use is appropriate for the type of fire you are fighting. If, for example, you spray water on a grease fire in the kitchen, the water will cause the grease to splatter, and the fire will likely spread. If you put water on electrical equipment that is on fire, you are putting yourself in danger of electrical shock. Depending on their intended use, they use a variety of extinguishing agents (water or chemical) for putting out a fire.
Fires extinguishers are divided into classifications based on what type of materials are burning. The most common classes are A, B, and C. Following is what each class includes.
Class A: Ordinary Combustibles—wood, cloth, rubber, paper, many plastics, fiberglass, basically anything that leaves an ash.
Class B: Flammable Liquids—gasoline, oil, and oil-based paint.
Class C: Energized Electrical Equipment—wiring, fuse boxes, circuit breakers, machinery, and appliances.
Class C does not include fires involving the 12-volt equipment found in all coaches. Once you de-energize or unhook from shore power and turn off your inverter or generator, a fire that occurs is a Class A fire rather than a Class C fire.
The National Fire Protection Association requires that all motor coaches have a portable fire extinguisher that is effective on both Class B and Class C fires. The guidelines do not require that your extinguisher have a Class A rating, which would make it effective in extinguishing fires involving the materials, like wood and cloth, that make up the interior of your bus.
It’s possible that your NFPA-approved fire extinguishers won’t be effective to fight a fire in your bus. Check your extinguisher’s markings so you’ll know what materials it will work on. Ideally, you should have an extinguisher with symbols for all classes on it. But in order to get a multi-use dry chemical extinguisher effective on just a small fire, you’d have to purchase a large, heavy extinguisher, which may not be ideal for RVers.
Perhaps a better solution is to purchase a noncorrosive designer foam extinguisher. This type is effective on Class A and Class B fires, which make up over 90% of all RV fires. Designer foam extinguishers are user-friendly, environmentally safe, and convenient for RV travel.
While the NFPA does not require that you carry more than one fire extinguisher, don’t take chances. One fire extinguisher is simply not enough. RV Alliance America’s Fire & Life Safety instructor, Mac McCoy, recommends having at least two extinguishers inside of your coach—one near the door and one in the bedroom—and an additional one in an unlocked outside compartment or in your towed vehicle. Make sure that everyone traveling with you is trained to use the extinguishers.
Checking Your Fire Extinguishers
Once you’ve determined that you have the right type of extinguishers, the next priority is to keep them properly maintained by checking them periodically. Check the fire extinguisher gauge to determine if there is pressure in the extinguisher. If the gauge indicates empty or needs charging, replace or recharge the extinguisher immediately. To test non-gauged extinguishers, push the plunger indicator (usually green or black) down. If it does not come back up, the extinguisher has no pressure to expel its contents. If you need help testing your fire extinguishers, check with your local fire department.
Do not pull the pin and expel the contents to test your powder extinguisher. If you use a portion of the powder extinguisher, have it refilled or replaced immediately. When you have a fire extinguisher refilled, ask to shoot off the charge first (most refill stations have a special place where this can be done safely). This lets you see how far it shoots and how long a charge lasts.
Invert and shake your dry powder or dry chemical extinguisher monthly to loosen the powder. The jarring of the coach while you travel down the road does not keep the powder loose; in fact, it packs the powder, which may make your extinguisher useless in fighting a fire.
How a Fire Burns
In order for fire to occur, four elements must be present:
Fuel (wood, paper, cloth, gas, oils, fiberglass)
Oxygen (air at between 17% and 19%)
Heat (brakes, engine compartment, exhaust system, transmission)
Chemical Chain Reaction (batteries, refrigerator)
If any one of these four components are missing, a fire cannot burn.
Extinguishing a Fire
There is a simple way to remember the steps to using your extinguisher to fight a fire—it’s called the P.A.S.S. procedure. These are the four steps to follow:
When using an extinguisher to put out the surface flames, make sure to totally penetrate the fuel so that it’s cooled. Otherwise, the fire can flare up again. This is when having an additional fire extinguisher is important. If you use your only fire extinguisher to stop the fire and don’t have another one to cool the area down, the fire could restart again and you won’t have anything to fight it with.
Besides fire extinguishers, if you have a quick-disconnect fitting on your water hookup, these hoses can be unhooked instantly and be used as a tool to fight a fire. If a nearby vehicle is burning and you cannot move your coach but can safely stay close enough to keep it hosed down, you may be able to save it.
Always leave large fires to the fire department, and only fight small fires that are contained, within reach, and that you can fight with your back toward a safe escape. If you have the slightest doubt if you should fight the fire, don’t attempt it! Instead get out and away fast.