Have you ever wondered what you would do if someone caught fire in your presence? Well, we hope it never does happen but if it does, you should be prepared to deal with it – especially if the person that catches fire is you! How do you put a fire out on someone?
Ideally, you want them to “stop, drop and roll” and then you can smother the flames with a wet blanket or a coat. However, there are times when this is not practical, and you might be forced to use a fire extinguisher, but that should be a last resort.
So, let’s examine what a fire is, how to put out a fire if you’re the person who catches fire, how to put out a fire on another person, the most important rule of fighting fires, what kind of fire extinguishers can be used on people and then the safety implications of having used fire extinguishers on people.
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Table of Contents
The Fire Triangle: What is Fire?
Before you can even consider putting out a fire, it’s a good idea to truly understand what a fire is. Fortunately, this isn’t a particularly complex idea but it’s a very useful one because when you know what makes up a fire, it’s fairly simple (in principle, if not always in practice) to take one apart again.
In order for a fire to burn there must be four things present:
- A supply of oxygen in order for the fire to burn. It is possible for oxygen to be present but in insufficient quantity for a fire to burn properly. So, if you remove oxygen or reduce the supply of oxygen to the fire, it’s much less likely to burn. This can also be accomplished with other “oxidizing” compounds, but oxygen is by far the most common.
- A supply of heat that brings the burning material to “ignition temperature”. Ignition is the temperature at which a fire can start. So, for example, paper famously has an ignition temperature of about 451 degrees Fahrenheit. So, it’s surprisingly difficult for paper to “spontaneously combust” even though we know that paper is very flammable. However, once paper is burning it supplies its own heat to propagate the burning reaction.
- A supply of fuel to burn. A fire can’t burn if there’s nothing to burn. The fuel in a fire is always some form of combustible material (think paper or oil or chemicals).
- An exothermic reaction. This is the “fire”. It means that oxygen, heat, and fuel are all working together to produce a release of energy as heat. Exothermic reactions don’t always create fires (the human body is exothermic as are all mammals, for example) but a fire can’t exist without an exothermic reaction being present.
We tend to refer to the 3 main elements of a fire: the oxygen, the heat and the fuel as “the fire triangle” though if you were to think of the exothermic reaction as a component of a fire then you’d be able to draw a “fire tetrahedron” instead.
Why does this matter?
That is, of course, an important question. It matters because if you can remove any element of the fire triangle/fire tetrahedron then you can extinguish the fire. If it doesn’t have all the essential parts of the reaction – fire cannot exist.
Here is a video that explains it better:
How Do You Put Out a Fire On Yourself/Your Clothes?
It’s worth noting that in about half these cases – there were flammable liquids or gases in the clothing before it caught fire – so keeping away from these things unless absolutely essential can help you avoid catching fire in the first place.
However, there are plenty of ways for people to catch fire. Kitchen injuries, lit cigarette accidents, campfires, etc. whenever there is a flame, there is a potential for your clothes to get caught up in that flame and for you to catch fire.
If you do catch fire, it’s important to understand that the faster you react – the less likely you are to be badly burned.
You must never run if you catch fire. It will not help, and it will make it difficult for other people to help you too.
The process is, in fact, to:
- STOP! That means don’t run, stop moving as soon as you notice that your clothes are on fire.
- DROP! That means you want to drop to the ground in a prone position. Then cover your face with your hands to protect it from any flames.
- ROLL! That means roll over and over and over until the flames are out. Don’t stop until they’re completely extinguished.
That’s stop, drop and roll and it’s the only practical way to handle a fire on your own body, particularly, if you don’t have any help to hand.
Once you have extinguished the fire, if you have any burn injuries, you should cool it under running water and call 9-1-1 to get medical treatment.
There is no way to predict what kind of injuries you might suffer in a clothes fire. Some clothes will melt in seconds and may cause severe burns, others will barely smolder, and you might walk away without any injury at all.
How Do You Put Out a Fire On Someone Else?
If you find someone else’s clothing has caught fire, you should encourage them to stop, drop and roll. This is, by far, the best way to extinguish clothing fires and you can still offer additional help while the person is trying to tackle their own flames.
You should then look to a get a blanket or a large coat and ideally soak it through with water and then wrap the person on the floor in this coat/blanket in order to extinguish the flames. This removes a source of oxygen from the fire (referring back to the fire triangle).
In the vast majority of cases, these two measures are going to be all that you need to tackle a fire on another person.
Once again, as soon as you have extinguished the flames, you should run any burns under cool water to reduce their impact as well as call 911 for treatment.
Safety Rule of Fighting Fires
OK, at this point – it’s very important to stress that you should only ever tackle a fire if you feel confident to do so. If you do not then you can end up causing more damage, potentially to yourself, other people and to property than you intended to prevent.
Most clothing fires will be quite minor and stop, drop and roll should tackle the majority of flames but if somebody has accidentally doused themselves in gasoline, for example, the flames might well be more persistent and difficult to extinguish.
So, here’s the rule: if you are in any doubt about your ability to tackle a fire safely, don’t tackle it. Call 911 and get help. You don’t help anyone by setting yourself on fire or spreading the fire around.
It is not an act of cowardice to ask for help – it’s vital to getting the best possible resolution to a fire.
Can a Fire Extinguisher Be Used On a Person?
Most of the time, a fire extinguisher is simply not the best solution to putting out a fire on another person.
Why not? Well, because a fire extinguisher was really built with the idea that a user would stand at a safe distance from the fire and then gradually aim at the base and move the spray around to smother the fire.
This creates a blanket over the fire which removes the oxygen and extinguishes the flame.
The problem with this is that it takes time. That’s time that the person who is on fire doesn’t really have. For every extra second they’re on fire could feel like an eternity, particularly if the burning is consuming skin tissue.
This means that you almost always want to use stop, drop and roll because it’s quicker and easier and if you can combine it with a blanket or coat – then it’s even faster. The objective ought to be speed and convenience and that’s not normally a fire extinguisher.
So, can a fire extinguisher be used on a person who is on fire?
Well, yes it can. In fact, as a last resort, a fire extinguisher will be reasonably safe to use on another person, even if it won’t necessarily be as fast as other solutions.
There is an order of preference when it comes to using an extinguisher on someone and that is:
- Water. Water is the safest and easiest extinguisher to use on a person. As long as the fire is not caused by electricity and/or the electricity supply has been fully disconnected from the person. Water is, of course, completely non-toxic and most materials that people wear will not react with water even if they are on fire. This makes it the best choice. Something like this.
- Dry powder. Dry powder is chemically inert, but you shouldn’t spray it in someone’s face. You will need to try and spray it evenly over the burning clothing to try and extinguish the fire. This is one that is very common.
- CO2. A lot of people seem to assume that carbon dioxide will dangerously harm the person you use it on. This is not true. You know that carbon dioxide is not particularly dangerous because you’re breathing it out as you read this. However, it can get bitterly cold – so keep the spraying to a minimum and don’t spray it in someone’s face. And it can displace oxygen so there isn’t enough to breathe. Here is an example of a CO2 extinguisher.
- Foam. This is a messier and less safe solution, but you can still use a foam fire extinguisher and again the most important thing is to keep the spray out of the person’s face.
What Are the Health Risks of Using a Fire Extinguisher On Someone
It might surprise you to learn that even in this era of safety-focused living, there hasn’t been a huge amount of research into the safety of using fire extinguishers on people. We’re going to assume that this is because a.) you shouldn’t really need to use them on people very often and b.) the trials would be severely unethical.
However, that doesn’t mean that no such research has ever been conducted. For example, a team that published their case study in the European Journal of Trauma had examined the case of a patient who had inhaled the spray of a dry chemical fire extinguisher.
They’d not been the victim of a clothing fire, mind you, they’d been caught in a car which had been in an accident and become trapped in a blaze.
This doesn’t change the fact that the powder didn’t result in a happy outcome for the hapless individual. The powder got caught in the patient’s lungs and they began to suffer from hypoxia (a lack of oxygen being exchanged in the lungs).
It is, theoretically possible, for extreme hypoxia as a result of being sprayed in a chemical powder might eventually lead to a heart attack. However, we’d like to stress that this isn’t what happened to the person in the case study.
It is also, theoretically, possible that the powder might lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome (and in this instance, the lungs would gradually fill up with fluid).
Even if neither of these grim outcomes occured, you might find the person suffers from mild irritation of nose, throat, and lungs. They might also have an asthma attack or suffer from an allergic reaction.
And while it’s unlikely that the use of a fire extinguisher could cause them to ingest (eat) large volumes of powder – doing so might cause kidney failure, seizures and irregular heartbeat!
CO2 extinguishers, on the other hand, despite the fact people tend to think of them as highly dangerous are only likely to cause minor blisters or irritation on the skin and if severely overused – a little frostbite.
There is also an outside chance that if a carbon dioxide extinguisher was used in a very small space that there would not be enough oxygen to breathe. The symptoms of carbon dioxide poisoning in this instance are likely to be dizziness followed by unconsciousness.
They can be reversed by moving the person(s) into a space with plenty of fresh air.
There is also, with all fire extinguishers other than water, a slight risk of eye damage or irritation if the fire extinguisher is discharged directly into a person’s face. This is something that is fairly unlikely when tackling a clothing fire as long as you’re careful with the extinguisher.
Despite all of the above – we’d stress that if you need to use an extinguisher on someone, you should – none of these symptoms are likely to be as bad as being burned.
How to put out a fire on someone? The basic principle when someone catches fire is “stop, drop and roll”. It helps them to extinguish the flames on themselves. If you are near someone on fire and they stop, drop and roll – you can then smother the flames in a wet blanket or a coat.
If this isn’t possible and you need to use a fire extinguisher on the individual – you should, ideally, use a water extinguisher (though make sure the fire is not electrical in nature or if it is that the electricity supply has been isolated before you use the extinguisher) but other extinguishers can be used if there’s no water available.