On fire events, some aircraft have a complex system, usually called a Fire Suppression System. Where are they located? Do they work automatically, or it is necessary for the crew to activate them?

The fire suppression system in an aircraft uses both passive and active systems to reduce and eliminate fires. Passive methods include the use of noncombustible materials, separation by routing, compartmentalization (use of firewalls), isolation, proper ventilation and drainage. The active methods include fire detection and extinguishing systems.

The fire extinguishing system in the aircraft consists of a number of components (excluding the fire detection system), which includes,

  • Portable (handheld) fire extinguishers in cockpit and cabin,

  • Fire extinguisher bottles for engines and APU

  • Cargo hold fire extinguisher systems and

  • Fire extinguishers for toilet waste bins.

All the transport aircraft are required to carry a minimum number of portable fire extinguishers depending on the number of passengers carried. The following table gives the minimum number of portable fire extinguishers to be carried in transport aircraft (the cockpit should have a minimum of one).

Number of fire extinguishers

Table from FAA document Fire Protection Systems

In case of cabin (or cockpit) fire, the portable fire extinguishers (usually, $CO_{2}$ extinguishers are not used) are used by the crew to extinguish the fire.

The engines and APUs have their own fire extinguishing systems, which have a liquid halogenated extinguishing agent and pressurized gas stored in fixed (typically steel) fire extinguisher containers, which are discharged on pilot command.

The engines have their own fire extinguishing systems, which usually have a pair of fire extinguishing bottles (or a pair for each engine), which supply extinguishing agent (Halon 1301 or Hydrofluorocompounds) to the engine.

Engine fire extinguishing

Image from Boeing Aero magazine- Fire Protection: Engines and Auxiliary Power Units

The fire detection system from each engine displays the status in the cockpit, which warns of any engine fire. In case the pilot pulls the fire handle, the fuel flow to the engine is shut off and an explosive cartridge is fired in the fire extinguishing bottle, releasing the agent into the engine.

Fire extinguisher engine

Image from FAA document Fire Protection Systems

The APU fire suppression system is similar to the engine fire suppression system, though only a single fire extinguisher bottle is used. Again, the fire extinguisher operation is commanded by the cockpit crew and results in the shutting down of the APU and the source of air.

APU fire extinguisher

Image from Boeing Aero magazine- Fire Protection: Engines and Auxiliary Power Units

In ground, the APU fire extinguishing system can operate automatically.

The cargo hold fire extinguishing system is similar to the above, where the crew can activate the fire extinguishing system if the smoke detectors in the cargo hold activates the warning lights in cabin. The extinguishing system is of two types- a dump system that releases the extinguishing agent directly when the cargo fire discharge switch is activated or a metered system, where metered bottles discharge slowly which keeps the correct concentration of extinguishing agent in the cargo compartment to keep the fire extinguished for 180 minutes.

Cargo hold fire suppression

Table from FAA document Fire Protection Systems

The toilet waste bin is the only place in the aircraft with an automatic fire extinguishing system (in addition to ashtrays), where the heat sensors (not smoke detectors) trigger fire extinguishers.


Some aircraft have On Board Inert Gas Generating System (OBIGGS), which is used to 'inert' the fuel tank using nitrogen (usually generated by membrane based gas separation).

In commercial airliners, there are usually two places where fire suppression systems are installed: the cargo compartment and the engines. Take the Boeing 777 for example, it has fire detection and extinguishing systems in the APU (which is technically an engine as well), cargo compartments, engines and lavatories; the crew rest compartments and main gear wheel wells come with fire detection but no extinguishing system.

Fire detection consists of two sensors. To prevent false alarms, both sensors must sense the presence of smoke for the alarm to be sound. The sensors has self fault-detection capability. One of the items on the pre-flight checklist is to activate the test circuits and see if the fire alarm sounds.

Fire suppression systems work by spraying a chemical agent.

When smoke is detected, an aural alarm is sound in the cockpit, along with red lights which indicate where is the fire. A message will also be shown in the flight computer screen (if the cockpit has one).

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For most systems, the pilots have to manually pull the handles to activate fire suppression. Take the engine fire extinguishing system in a Boeing 777 for example, there are two engine fire extinguisher bottles. Either or both bottles can be discharged into either engine. It is up to the pilots to follow the emergency procedures, or make a judgment call if they think the pre-established procedure is not the best course of action in a given situation.

The lavatory fire extinguisher, on the other hand, is automatic.

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