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Fire protection

By K. Stephen Busick, F45180Every year, we hear and read of motor coaches that were damaged or destroyed by fire. The damage occurred because the occupants were unable to stop the fire from spreading. Perhaps they were not with the coach when the blaze began, or perhaps an explosion forced them to flee to safety. While it is recommended that the fire department be notified as soon as a fire is discovered, frequently a coach can be saved and damage minimized if the occupants have access to the proper fire-fighting equipment, and if they possess the knowledge and strength to use that equipment while waiting for the fire department to arrive.

It cannot be stressed  enough, however, that the most important goal in fire fighting is the protection of human life. No matter how much you value your coach, do not endanger your safety or that of others if you are ever confronted with a fire.

Although RVs come equipped with fire extinguishers, some owners either replace or supplement the original fire extinguishers with one or more additional units. But if the new fire extinguishers are not the correct type or size, they provide the owner with a false sense of security. When selecting fire extinguishers, consider the type of fire that can be expected in the area where it will be used and the characteristics of the property to be protected. An extingufisher that is effective in one situation may not be effective in another.

Fire extinguisher ratings

Fire extinguishers have a combination of numbers and letters — such as 1-A:10-B:C or 1-B:C — imprinted on them. The letters indicate the particular types of fires for which the unit is appropriate.

Class A fires involve ordinary flammable materials, such as wood, paper, cloth, rubber and some plastics. Class B fires involve burning liquids, gases and greases. Class C fires are electrical fires.

A fourth type of fire, one involving combustible metals such as magnesium and sodium, is termed Class D. Since the public is not normally involved with fires of this nature, most portable fire extinguishers for general sale do not have a Class D rating.

The numbers are approximations of the relative ability of the unit to extinguish each type of fire. The higher the number, the greater the fire-extinguishing potential. For instance, an extinguisher that has a 20-B rating has the potential to extinguish a flammable liquid fire that is approximately twice as large as that which a 10-B unit could handle, four times as large as a 5-B unit could handle, and so on. Naturally, outside the laboratory, the skill and training of the operator will affect the size of the fire that can be extinguished by a unit with a particular rating.

Numbers do not precede the C rating on a fire extinguisher, because only the electrical non-conducting characteristics of the fire-extinguishing system are tested. Once the electricity is turned off, Class A or B extinguishers may be used to fight a fire started by electricity.

The conditions under which fire extinguishers are tested, including such factors as construction of test materials, method of ignition, and observations to be made during the tests, are explained in detail in Standard for Rating and Fire Testing of Fire Extinguishers, a publication from Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL).

Types of extinguishers

Although various types of fire extinguishes are available, it is likely that the unit you purchase will be a dry chemical type. Halon extinguishers were formerly popular because of their powerful fire-extinguishing properties and because they left no residue. However, a 1987 agreement, amended in 1992, calls for a worldwide cessation in producing halon, because it may deplete the earth's ozone layer.

If you use a halon fire extinguisher, keep in mind that although some types of halon vapors have a low toxicity level, the gases that are produced when halon units extinguish a fire can be hazardous. Because the space in a motorhome is inherently small, extra care should be taken to avoid breathing these gases. 

If an agent other than halon can safely be used to extinguish a fire, it is recommended that it be used instead. Halon extinguishers should not simply be discarded or abandoned. Return them to a facility that can safely recover any gas remaining in the unit.

Dry chemical extinguishers are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased in many stores. Many of these units are rated for A, B and C fires, so that no time is consumed deciding whether the unit is the correct one to use in a given situation. However, it must be noted that although a particular unit is rated for all classes of fires, it probably will not be equally effective at extinguishing all burning materials. Consideration of the combustibles you are likely to encounter and the advantages and disadvantages of the various types of fire extinguishers is still necessary for maximum protection.

Dry chemical extinguishers can make a considerable mess when deployed. The dry chemical extinguishers agent can be corrosive and may damage the very objects that you are trying to protect. This possibility is decreased by cleaning the objects as quickly as possible after the fire is out.

Extinguisher upkeep

Just as tires, lights and other safety equipment require periodic inspections and maintenance, so do fire extinguishers. Examine your fire extinguishers regularly to make sure that they have not lost their pressure. Visually inspect them to ensure that they are not physically damaged and that the nozzles are not clogged with insects or dirt.

To determine whether the pressure remains satisfactory, check the pressure gauge or test pin. Do not "test" the unit by partially discharging it. This will cause most dry chemical units to lose their pressure completely, thus requiring recharging or replacement.

If you discharge any fire extinguisher, have it professionally examined immediately. Although most units can be recharged, you may wish to buy another fire extinguisher for protection until you find someone who can service the discharged unit. Most larger cities have at least one facility listed under "Fire Protection Equipment" in the phone directory. These types of facilities should be able to assist you.

 Some individuals believe that the dry chemicals in a motorhome's fire extinguisher can settle and cake as the vehicle is driven down the road. They fear that only the propellant and no dry chemical will come out if they don't "reblend" the contents by shaking their extinguishers occasionally. Most authorities believe that this shaking is unnecessary, but if it makes you feel better to shake your fire extinguisher, go ahead and do it.

Proper use

Finally, a fire extinguisher is of little or no help if it is not used properly. This means that all potential users should know how to operate it and must be physically capable of doing so. Follow these steps to make sure you'll be ready to use your extinguisher:

  • Periodically review the instructions printed on the fire extinguisher. You will not have time to read these instructions when you need to use it.
  • Be sure you can manipulate the device. Although you may be tempted to buy the largest unit available, it is useless if it is too heavy to be maneuvered into place and utilized.
  • Keep it accessible. A fire extinguisher is useless if you store it out of reach in our closet or cupboard, and consequently cannot grab it when it is needed.
  • Consider purchasing an extra extinguisher to be used as a "training tool." This unit can be used by various members of the family to extinguish small fires that have been started in a safe location, such as a fire pit. The knowledge gained from this experience will be far greater than the purchase price of the fire extinguisher. Be sure to follow all fire safety rules during this test, and take proper precautions to prevent the fire from spreading if the portable unit is unable to extinguish it. Please note that it is not advisable to use halon units for routine training exercises.

Remember that the approximate discharge time will likely be 10 seconds or less for smaller hand-held dry-chemical units. Naturally, any time spent misapplying the dry chemical uses some of these precious seconds, making it even more important that you and your family know how to handle your fire extinguishers and do not get yourselves into a situation that simply overpowers your ability to fight the fire.

Get protected

Do not allow your family to be unprotected, or even under protected, at home or in your motorhome. Although fire extinguishers are like insurance policies — we buy them and then hope that we never need to use them — make sure that you have the proper fire-fighting equipment and that everyone has the training to use it if it is ever needed.

And while we all like to think that it will never happen to use, the people who lost a coach yesterday, last week or last month all thought that it would never happen to them, too, right up to the minute that it did.

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