We Didn’t Stop the Fire: Millions of Extinguishers Recalled for Potential Serious Malfunctions

Michael GrossmanNovember 08, 2017 4 minutes

On November 2 the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) announced a recall of tens of millions of fire extinguishers for several potential malfunctions that might prevent them from being used effectively on fires. Tragically, these malfunctions have already led to one fatality and easily could cause others before the recall can gain significant traction. Let's look at what's going on.

Which Products Are Affected?

The recall involves two styles of Kidde brand fire extinguishers: basic models with plastic handles and their push-button "Pindicator" line of extinguishers. Both are pictured below with illustrations about where to find their specific information.

Between them these models have been on the market for decades, allegedly providing homeowners and businesses with a measure of safety against unforeseen fires. The extinguishers were rated ABC (usable on trash/wood/paper fires, chemical fires, and electrical fires) or BC (not rated for wood/trash/paper fires), but the recall suggests those ratings aren't accurate.

What's Wrong With The Products?

According to the CPSC, the affected models of Kidde extinguishers can become clogged or require excessive force to discharge, meaning they can either work to a substandard degree or even completely fail to activate during a fire emergency. In sum, the specific thing that fire extinguishers are meant to do, these might completely fail at. Fires aren't big on "do-overs," either.

If that's not enough, the recall also says that the unit's nozzle can potentially detach during use--with enough force to pose an impact hazard. That means when you squeeze the handle of the extinguisher, it might not only fail to extinguish the fire, but also possibly send a nozzle-shaped projectile whizzing around a flaming room.

Kidde and the CPSC are aware of several reported extinguisher failures, including a 2014 incident in which emergency responders couldn't activate their Kidde units to put out a vehicle fire after a crash. They were unable to reach the car's occupant, who died at the scene. There have also been roughly 390 additional reports of failed/limited activation of Kidde units, including incidents of nozzle detachment. Of these reports, 91 included property damage and 16 involved injuries from the fires that weren't extinguished, such as smoke inhalation and burns.

Who Makes This Product?

All of the recalled extinguishers are made by Walter Kidde Portable Equipment Company Inc. ("Kidde" for brevity) of Mebane, North Carolina.

The products are assembled in factories in the U.S. and Mexico. They were sold in major retail outlets like Montgomery Ward, Sears, The Home Depot, Walmart and many other stores nationwide. Customers could also buy them online on Amazon, ShopKidde.com and other retail sites at a cost of $12 to $50 (the XL5 MR model runs about $200). The extinguishers were also included with sales of many recreational vehicles, commercial trucks, and personal watercraft.

How Widespread is the Problem?

With decades of sales and tens of millions of units stocking homes and vehicles across the country, the problem is unfortunately very widespread. The recall involves a total of 134 models of Kidde fire extinguishers manufactured in the wide date range of January 1, 1973 though August 15, 2017. Some of those models have been recalled before, in March 2009 and February 2015 respectively. The recall notice estimates that roughly 37.8 million extinguishers in the U.S. and another 2.7 million in Canada are affected.

The models are listed below. As noted above, concerned owners of a Kidde extinguisher can find the model number of their unit on the bottom right of the label.

If that looks like a lot of model numbers, you're right--it is. Apparently this has been building on and off for 44 years.

What Should Owners of the Product Do?

First and foremost, try not to start any runaway fires. Beyond that, Kidde and the CPSC encourage consumers to contact the company ASAP to request a free replacement fire extinguisher (no refunds are being offered) and for instructions on returning the recalled unit. Kidde's toll-free customer service line can be reached at (855) 271-0773 on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Consumers can also visit the manufacturer's recall website for more information.

Note: This campaign includes fire extinguisher models that were previously recalled in March 2009 and February 2015. The chart above is comprehensive and includes the extinguishers from the previous recalls, and anyone who still has one of those models should also contact Kidde for a replacement.

Recall information for owners of RV's and commercial vehicles equipped with Kidde extinguishers can be found on on the NHTSA's website.

What This Means

I'm pretty taken aback by the breadth of this recall. We're talking about forty million extinguishers that could fail at some crucial moment, putting people's property and their very lives at risk. Maybe that seems melodramatic, but I don't think so--unchecked fires should be considered deadly serious. I hear a lot lately about hundreds of wooded acres at a time flaming up like matchbooks on the West Coast; as deadly as they already are, how much worse would they be if firefighters didn't have reliable resources to fight them? What if their hoses were leak-prone, or their flame-retardant foam dried out?

For the rest of us, the thought of aiming a fire extinguisher at a burning pizza only to have it go "pppphhhllbbbbbbbbt" and give up is genuinely off-putting. Consumers aren't wrong to think that the things they buy should function as promised, and the law is on their side about that. Breach of warranty is a term of product liability law that refers to the failure of a seller to fulfill the terms of a promise, claim, or representation made concerning the quality or type of the product. Since the products are "fire extinguishers," any consumer could reasonably expect them to douse some flames should the need arise. Since it appears they often won't be able to do that, anyone injured by their malfunction might have grounds to seek compensation.

If Kidde has historically made and sold units that might be unable to perform their only requisite task--ones that have required prior recalls over the past few years--it seems as though they're not learning important lessons about quality control. Let's hope that the urgent reclamation of forty millions extinguishers will prompt them to take a long look at the materials and processes they use when assembling these important emergency-response tools.