JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Where do fire extinguishers go when they die?

If they happened to expire on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, their first stop is the Hazardous Material Control Center -- but that's just the beginning.

Starting last summer, JBLM's Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division initiated an effort to dispose of old fire extinguishers in-house. The effort has resulted in a $6,000 net profit to date, and the division is about to do it all again.

Because fire extinguishers are considered hazardous waste, they can't simply be tossed out. So when they get too old to be used or are removed from vehicles before deployments, they need extra attention. When taking bids from outside contractors, Kyle Greer, supervisor of environmental protection specialists, found this additional care comes at a cost -- anywhere from $375 to a whopping $150,000 for the 2,000 unusable extinguishers they had collected by the start of summer 2011.

"Nobody had the money in their budget," he said.

So, Greer began looking at other options.

His first step was crunching the numbers, and the results were surprising. A brand new, 10-pound extinguisher costs $29 to purchase and $118 for an outside contractor to get rid of, according to Greer.

The extinguishers couldn't just be thrown away, and no one could keep them. But Greer figured it wouldn't be too hard to simply do it all themselves.

For $150 he bought a pair of saws and paid DPW Environmental employees overtime for weeks of after-hours work. The group works assembly line style to cut the extinguishers in half, dump out the powdered chemicals they contain -- and here's the real genius -- collect the high-grade steel the extinguishers are made of to be sold as scrap.

"It was a major team effort," said DPW Environmental Protection Specialist Kevin Welsh.
Even with paying the employees extra, it cost just over $12 thousand to dispose of 4,000 fire extinguishers -- the parts of which then sold for $18 thousand. The profit goes to the Qualified Recycle Program on base, according to Greer.

The new process couldn't come at a better time. Truth be told, there's a back-log of aging fire extinguishers on base. They need to be inspected and recertified every three years, but only a few years ago units would have had to take them off base for this service. Then they would have to come back to pick up any that could still be used.

Experts suspect the inconvenience led to units stashing their old extinguishers wherever they could and just buying new ones.

"I knew that we had a problem when I was selling that many fire extinguishers," HMCC manager Dan Cline said.

Now, though, the process is much more streamlined -- and all of it happens on the installation.
Units can bring up to ten fire extinguishers to the HMCC at a time every Tuesday and Thursday. From there, an outside contractor inspects them and recertifies the ones that can be used. Those that can't are "cannibalized" to refurbish the functional extinguishers, and held in what Greer calls "a fire extinguisher wasteland" until DPW Environmental can dispose of them.

All the units have to do is drop them off and then come by later to pick up 10 working (though maybe not brand new) extinguishers.

"Since this has started I hardly sell any at all," Cline said. "All we do is recondition them."

In the end, the benefits are clear -- to the environment and the bottom line.