July 9, 2012 — -- When Kerri Braun was asked to attend a demonstration on family fire drills recently in Mahwah, N.J., she got quite a surprise when she was given a fire extinguisher and told to put out a blaze right behind her.
It took Braun, 35, of Highland Falls, N.Y., 10 seconds to pull the pin on her fire extinguisher, long enough for a single burning piece of furniture to become an inferno.
"I always thought it [an extinguisher] would be easy to use and it's not as easy as you think," she told ABC News.
"World News" invited homeowners to the Bergen County, N.J., Law and Public Safety Institute to see whether they could figure out how to use a fire extinguisher under pressure.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 3,500 Americans die each year in fires and approximately 18,300 are injured. The agency says that even though a fire extinguisher in the hands of a trained adult can save lives, a majority do not know how to use them.
Dana White, 40, of Waldwick, N.J., said that she learned an important lesson from the experiment: Fire extinguishers are only for small fires that are just starting. Experts say that when faced with bigger fires, people should simply flee.
"Nothing was happening," she said after trying to start the fire extinguisher. "It really didn't seem like it was helping the fire."
During her test, Vincenette Anello, 31, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., stood too far away from the flames for the extinguisher to do any good.
She said she learned to "just get out. Get out!"
Firefighters told ABC News that too often they see tragedies because homeowners don't know how to use extinguishers -- even when they have them in the house.
"Fire doubles every 60 seconds," said Chief Larry Rausch, the Bergen County fire-safety program coordinator. "So the longer it's delayed, the worse the fire is going to be."
Enrik Reyes, 45, of West Point, N.Y., got his fire extinguisher working but then took his eyes off the blaze -- a big no-no -- as his wife, Millie Reyes, struggled with hers and he tried to help her.
"I'm thinking: 'What is she doing? What am I supposed to do?'" he said.
If there are two people at the scene of a fire, ideally one should work the fire extinguisher while the other calls 911.
"We definitely need to practice this at home," said Millie Reyes, 40.
To use a fire extinguisher correctly, experts say that one should remember the acronym P.A.S.S. --
P: Pull the pin.
A: Aim at the base of the fire.
S: Squeeze the trigger.
S: Sweep side to side.
But they say the most important lesson of all is when not to try using an extinguisher. The devices are only meant for small fires in their very beginning stages. Anything bigger and you should get out while you can and call 911.
Here are some additional fire-extinguisher tips from Rausch, the National Fire Protection Association and from Underwriters Laboratories Inc., which independently tests products and provides safety recommendations:
1. When buying fire extinguishers for your home: choose extinguishers labeled "ABC," which means they are broad-spectrum and can combat all different kinds of fires. Also look for the seal of an independent testing organization to make sure the extinguisher is high quality.
2. Make sure they have gauges on them that tell you how much of the fire-fighting chemicals is left in the canister.
3. Get the largest, heaviest fire extinguisher you can comfortably handle, so you'll have more fire-fighting power.
4. Store your fire extinguishers near the exits of the rooms they are in, so you can fight the fire from a location where there's a clear path to get out. Make sure they are easy to grab, not trapped behind other belongings.
5. Read the instructions that come with the fire extinguisher and become familiar with its parts and operation before a fire breaks out. Local fire departments or fire equipment distributors often offer hands-on fire extinguisher trainings.
6. Get every other member of the family out of the house and have them call 911. Meanwhile, if the fire is not spreading, is confined to a small area, and the room is not filled with smoke, use the appropriate type of extinguisher on the fire.
7. Know both your limits and the fire extinguisher's limits. The best way to think of fire extinguishers is as an aid in getting out alive rather than a device to douse a fire completely.
8. Periodically inspect your extinguishers to determine if they need to be recharged or replaced. Look at the gauge to see if there is ammunition left.
9. Extinguishers need to be recharged or replaced after each use - even if you haven't used the entire extinguishing agent. Check the gauge on the fire extinguisher for this information.
10. When using a portable extinguisher, always keep your back to an unobstructed exit that is free from fire. This will allow a clear path to an exit.