No one who works in a restaurant wants to see it catch fire. That’s why operators and employees pay constant and close attention to potential trouble spots so fires don’t break out. But despite this level of vigilance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that an average of 5,900 restaurant fires take place in the U.S. each year.
"A fire may be the quickest way to destroy a restaurant business," says Craig Kwitoski, v.p. of Irvine, CA-based insurance agency SullivanCurtisMonroe. "While the day-to-day activities of running a restaurant are time-consuming, the potential consequences of a fire make it worthwhile to set aside time for preventive measures."
The experts from SullivanCurtisMonroe’s food industries practice suggest that operators follow these five steps to keep their restaurants safe:
1. Comply with standards. FEMA found that 59 percent of restaurant fires originate in the cooking area and are often caused by deep-fat fryers.
Today's deep-fat fryers are highly efficient and use vegetable oils. Unfortunately, though, they cook at higher temperatures and retain heat longer than older fryers. In addition, the dry chemical fire suppression systems previously used are not effective with today's fryers.
If your restaurant uses deep-fat fryers or produces grease-laden vapors, you'll need a wet chemical fire suppression system that is UL 300 compliant. UL 300 was developed by Underwriters Laboratories specifically to protect restaurant cooking areas.
To keep oil from overheating and igniting, fryers should shut off automatically when a high temperature is reached. Fryers should be located at least 16 inches away from gas stoves, char-grills or other open-flame appliances. If they are closer, an eight-inch stainless steel baffle should be installed between them.
2. Maintain your fire suppression system. Fire suppression systems should be serviced every six months. In addition, regularly check caps on discharge nozzles to ensure that openings are not clogged by grease or debris.
3. Clean your exhaust duct regularly. A buildup of grease in the exhaust system can cause a fire. Clean your exhaust duct with the following frequency:
• Monthly if you use solid fuels, such as wood or charcoal.
• Quarterly if your kitchen operates at a high volume (i.e., if the restaurant does 24-hour cooking, extensive frying, charbroiling or wok cooking).
• Semiannually if your kitchen operates at a moderate volume.
• Annually for low-volume cooking operations, such as churches, day camps or seasonal businesses.
4. Train your employees. Show all employees where fire extinguishers are located and how to use them. Teach them how to manually activate the fire suppression system, and how to react in an emergency, based on your emergency evacuation plan.
5. Know the basics. Maintain clear, uncluttered walkways and storage areas. Use only Type K extinguishers on cooking fires. Avoid using extension cords or frayed electrical cords. Keep combustibles away from hot surfaces. Clean grills and kitchen equipment frequently. If you re-arrange equipment under the hood, have your fire protection servicing company evaluate whether you need to re-arrange the nozzles on your fire suppression system.
"It's neither time-consuming nor expensive to practice fire prevention," says Kwitoski. “But doing so has the potential to save your restaurant."