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Employees and manual fire control
By: Captain James Benjamin, MS, CSHM, CFEI

Manual fire control is always the third and final option of the three major methods of handling fire protection.  Fire prevention is the first and most prudent, followed by engineering controls that limit fire growth and development, including automatic fire suppression equipment.

Fighting fires should always be the last option considered as part of fire protection preparations.  Even though it is a last resort, it is an extremely important part of being prepared for fires.  If manual firefighting is required, the other preferred controls to preventing fires have failed.  This article will cover manual fire suppression efforts by employees.  It is not intended to deal with firefighting by fire departments.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) permits a wide range of approaches to manual fire control by employees.  All employers should have emergency action and fire prevention plans (see 29 CFR 1910.38).  This plan covers notification about fires and other emergency, evacuation of the facility, accounting for personnel, and shutdown of critical processes.  A fire prevention plan details the approaches of the organization toward preventing fires.

All manual firefighting involves some risk.  To completely eliminate this risk, some employers choose to have their personnel evacuate without attempting to extinguish even small fires.  This approach may be preferred by organizations that have only a small potential for fires, or where fires will tend to become fully developed in a short period of time.

If an organization decides to have employees fight fires, then one or more of several options may be selected.  These options are not mutually exclusive.  For example, an employer with an interior structural fire brigade may also allow employees to use fire extinguishers.  If all employees are permitted to fight fires, then all personnel must receive training on their duties and the proper use of extinguishers.  This training should be hands-on, so the employees have an idea of what it is like to actually fight fires.  
However, OSHA does not require live burn exercises.  Refresher training shall be provided on an annual basis.  However, if a selected group of employees are designated as permitted to use fire extinguishers, than their training must be hands-on.

Fire brigades are divided into two categories - the incipient and structural.  The incipient stage fire brigade is intended to control small fires and the structural brigade, as the name implies, may fight fires of any size and type.  Both types of brigades require an organizational statement that establishes the scope and organizational structure of the group.  This statement should also address training, equipment, and the functions of the group.  Standard operating guidelines must also be developed that guide the actions of the brigade during emergencies.

An incipient stage fire brigade does not require special protective clothing or equipment.  Organizations that select this option are primarily interested in the well-organized response that a team may provide.  These teams require annual training that must include hands-on practice.
Again, these incipient teams focus on small fires that are discovered early in their development (i.e., rubbish fires, fires confined to trash cans, etc.).  It is not uncommon to have a “one shot rule” established with these teams.

 Teams following this rule are allowed to try and control or extinguish a fire through the use of one extinguisher, provided the fire department or interior structural fire brigade has been notified first.

Interior structural fire brigades add the dimension of specialized protective clothing and other equipment.  Members of this type of fire brigade wear firefighting ensembles that are similar, if not identical, to what the local fire department issues to its members, including self-contained breathing apparatus.  The extra burden of using this protective equipment and the physical demands of interior structural firefighting require that individuals who participate in this type of fire brigade have medical examinations to ensure their physical capability to do this work safely.  The interior structural fire brigade requires quarterly training and at least some of this training must be hands on (29 CFR 1910.156 (c)(2)).


The most common manual fire control technique used in industrial and commercial facilities is the portable fire extinguisher.   The following applies to extinguishers use in all situations and with all types of extinguishers.

When an individual discovers a fire, there are two priorities that must be completed.  The first is to notify the people in the facility that a fire condition exists.  Life safety is always the primary concern. The second priority is to notify the fire department. 
However, past experience has demonstrated that this does not happen, especially when dealing with people who have been trained on how to properly use fire extinguishers. 

This behavior is very risky and should be discouraged during training.  Delays can often make substantial differences in the amount of damage and subsequent loss caused by a fire.  It is worth mentioning that sometimes both of these priorities can be completed together through internal alarm systems (i.e., pull stations or PBX systems).

I can tell you that from a fire department’s standpoint, it is much better to arrive on scene and find that a fire has been extinguished than to arrive and find a fire that has grown and spread because it was not reported until an occupant had unsuccessfully attempted to extinguish the fire.  NOTE: even if you believe the fire has been extinguished it is better to have fire department personnel check to ensure it is completely out and that it has not extended to other areas.

After these priorities have been completed, the individual must evaluate the fire situation and decide whether to fight the fire or not.  This decision is based on a number of factors.  Is there an operable fire extinguisher close to the seat of the fire?  If no extinguishers are present, logic would dictate leaving the area and waiting on the fire department to arrive.  Another consideration is the intensity and magnitude of the fire.  An individual should not risk personal injury by attempting to control a fire that is too big or growing at a rapid rate.  Again, logic would dictate withdrawing from the area, waiting for the fire department.

If an individual determines it is safe to attempt to control the fire, the next step is to deploy an appropriate fire extinguisher.  The extinguisher must be suitable for the class of fire to be controlled.  In general, there are four main classes of fire, these are (IFSTA, Fire Inspection and Code Enforcement 6th edition):

Fire Class Material Symbol

  • Class A Ordinary Combustibles Wood, paper, plastic, rubber Green triangle
  • Class B Flammable Liquids Liquids, greases, gases Red square
  • Class C Live Electrical Equipment Energized electrical equipment Blue Circle
  • Class D Combustible Metals Aluminum, Magnesium, Titanium, Sodium, Zirconium, Potassium, Lithium, Calcium, Zinc Yellow Star
Keep in mind that the contents of an extinguisher are stored under pressure, so bringing an extinguisher to the fire SAFELY is more important than speed.  If the fire is inside a structure, it is important that the person who is going to use the extinguisher position himself or herself so that an exit is always at their back.  That way, if the attempt to control the fire fails, they are in excellent position for making egress from the area.

The person with the extinguisher must prepare to fight the fire from a comfortable distance, which should be a minimum of 10-15 feet away.  Prior to moving in to begin fighting the fire, the operator must check the extinguisher to make sure it is charged and suited for the fire at hand.  The general operating instructions follow the letters P-A-S-S.

P – Pull the pin.  This will break the plastic or thin wire and allow the pin to be removed, which then allows the extinguisher to operate.  A test discharge should be conducted to make sure the extinguisher is operating properly.
A – Aim the nozzle or outlet at the fire.
S – Squeeze the handle.
S – Sweep the nozzle back and forth at the base of the flames.
After the fire has been extinguished, the operator should back away from the fire.  That way the operator will know if the fire should re-ignite.

As stressed earlier, prevention is the best course of action when dealing with fires.  So work smart and work safe, but know how to react in the case the unexpected happens!

About the author:
Captain Benjamin is a career Safety Professional for a global chemical company headquartered in Cincinnati.  He is also a Captain on the Glendale Fire Department, which is a historic residential community just North of Cincinnati, Ohio.  The Glendale Fire Department runs Automatic Aid (on all structure related calls) with the Woodlawn and Lincoln Heights Fire Departments in Ohio.  James has served the Glendale Fire Department since 1988 when at the age of 14 when he joint as a Cadet.  At the same age, James joined the Springdale Fire Department Explorer Post (Post 911).  During his time as Explorer Post Chief, Post 911 was ranked 3rd in the Nation. 

Captain Benjamin holds both a Masters of Science Degree in Loss Prevention and Safety, as well as, Bachelors of Science Degree in Police Administration with a minor in Fire Protection Engineering Technology from Eastern Kentucky University.  He is also a National Registered EMT-B, a Certified Arson and Explosion Investigator/Instructor, a Certified Safety and Health Manager, and an active member of the Hamilton County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC).  Captain Benjamin is also a member of the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI), the Institute for Safety and Health Management (ISHM), and the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). 

Prior to working as a Safety Director, James was employed by Eastern Kentucky University as an Adjunct Professor and taught courses in Fire Protection Engineering Technology and Fire ground Command and Tactics. 

In 1994 Captain Benjamin received the Lincoln Heights Fire Department’s Heroism Medal for a double rescue involving a man and his infant son who were trapped in a fully involved apartment fire.  James is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio and currently lives in Glendale.