What Are Their Limits?
Portable extinguishers are only part of a complete fire-safety plan that includes smoke detectors, an evacuation plan, and, say fire officials, a sprinkler system. "A heat-activated residential sprinkler system provides the best chance of survival," says Mark Conroy, senior fire protection engineer with the Quincy, Massachusetts-based National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an independent organization that formulates standards for fire safety. The downside is cost: While the NFPA estimates a sprinkler system adds about 2 percent to the cost of building a new home — about $3,000 to $6,000 for a 2,000-square-foot house — retrofitting an existing home with one costs even more.

But Conroy and other experts agree that extinguishers have their place if you know their limits. Most residential extinguishers provide an effective range of just 6 to 10 feet, and last about 10 seconds before their contents deplete. That's why they work best on small, contained fires like the ones in wastebaskets and small appliances. The key is catching the fire early while its temperature is relatively low. Once the fire becomes entrenched, filling a room with heat, smoke, and deadly gases, the odds that you'll put it out with an extinguisher quickly drop.

These same limitations make extinguishers useless if a fire spreads to other parts of a room. That's why calling the department right away is so important. "We see situations like this a lot," notes David Nichols, fire marshal with the Chesterfield Fire District, west of St. Louis. "The occupants start using an extinguisher and neglect to call the fire department. In the meantime, the fire gets away from them."

Delaying that call wastes valuable time. "Just three to five minutes can make a huge difference in how far a fire spreads," Nichols adds.
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