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  • M. Villarreal

Commercial Kitchen Fire Safety

Updated: May 13, 2021

In 2013, four Houston firefighters lost their lives fighting a restaurant fire that ultimately raged out of control in what has been called the deadliest blaze in the HFD’s history.

Officials believe the blaze began as a small kitchen fire in the restaurant, which shared a common wall and was attached to a small hotel. Shortly after noon on May 31, 2013 a restaurant employee ran into the hotel and began telling employees and guests to evacuate. By the time the fire department arrived, the flames had already spread to the hotel, and less than 15 minutes later firefighters were dealing with a “mayday” scenario. Believing there might still be customers or employees inside the hotel, firefighters courageously entered the building. Shortly afterwards, the roof, and one wall, suffered a sudden and catastrophic failure, resulting in the tragic deaths of four of Houston firefighters and caused injury to 13 others.

The Restaurant had a history of safety violations, including a recent citation for failing to properly clean grease traps, which was given by city officials earlier that March. It turned out, one of the contributing factors was dirty grease traps which may have allowed the fire to go on undetected two or three hours.

Although there were other contributing factors, the truth is, dirty grease traps, grease filters, and kitchen exhaust systems pose a serious fire hazard and this could have been easily avoided. All that uncleaned grease serves as fuel for fires that can ignite inside the exhaust system, sometimes suddenly and sometimes, like in this case, where they smolder undetected until they are out of control and become extremely difficult to put out and have the potential to spread to other parts of the building.

Commercial kitchens are at high risk for fire because multiple ignition sources and flammable items squeeze into compact, high-traffic footprints: open flames, electrical connections, heating systems, cooking oils and fuels, hot appliances, paper products and accumulated grease. Even small fires, fed by fat and oil in tightly packed confines, can escalate in a flash. Grill flare ups, for example, can combust at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, igniting grease in the hood above and spreading flames throughout the duct system in minutes. Further, devastating fires – like the comedy club blaze – may catch in hidden areas and entrench before detection systems or staff raise the alarm.

The best way to handle commercial kitchen fires? PREVENT THEM! Typical losses per fire average over $30,000 and sadly, nearly half of all establishments shut their doors permanently after the flames are extinguished.

An experienced hood vent exhaust system and commercial kitchen cleaning company like Cornerstone Commercial Services could have definitely helped keep up with grease removal and cleaning requirements to reduce their overall risk of the kitchen fire. Cornerstone Commercial Services’ hood vent cleaning is very simple and cost-effective when compared to the alternative – any number of lives lost or injuries sustained in a fire is too high a price to pay. It’s not worth saving a few bucks by skimping on your exhaust system cleanings when the consequences could be so dire. In addition to hiring a professional hood vent and exhaust system cleaning company, there are some actions you and your team can take to help reduce the risk of fire immediately. Combat your risk with a three-pronged strategy:

  • Pre - Plan: Commercial kitchens require specific fire safety measures and regular inspections, many of which are specified by government code (like NFPA96), ordinances and regulations. Hire experts to assess your system and fire risks before an inspector – who may visit as often as monthly depending on kitchen volume and type – points out shortcomings. Three of five commercial kitchen fires start in cooking equipment and appliances, so is your fire suppression system ready to dispense chemicals automatically or via manual switch? When the system activates, will it immediately cut fuel and electric supply to nearby cooking equipment? Are electrical connections far enough away from ignition sources? Are your exhaust fans clean and clear enough to carry the heat and moisture away to avoid triggering fire alarms erroneously? These are all prudent questions that seasoned pros address.

  • Be Vigilant: Every commercial kitchen requires regular maintenance to at least maintain, if not boost fire safety. Appliances, electrical equipment, Class K portable fire extinguishers, exhaust fans and vents must be inspected, refurbished, recharged and/or cleaned regularly. Pay particular attention to grease traps, hoods and vent systems and hire trained professionals to clean these areas regularly. National NFPA96 Standards say you should be cleaning your exhaust system once per quarter for most commercial kitchens. Greasy exhaust system residue becomes combustible at only 700 degrees Fahrenheit. Especially if you are serving award-winning wood-fired pizza or high fat content foods at your restaurant? Be realistic and if needed, up that maintenance budget to prevent disaster: solid fuel cooking and high fat content rapidly deposits creosote and other highly flammable byproducts in your system. Rigorous daily cleaning measures are extremely helpful in reducing risks, but a professional cleaning is needed at least quarterly.

  • Train Properly: It’s not enough to just develop, distribute and give staff time to read emergency plans, you also have to schedule and provide them the time to practice emergency procedures and evacuation plans. First train, then check their knowledge and finally, drill regularly on kitchen best practices and fire safety measures. Kitchen best practices may include rules for storing and using flammable liquids and chemical solutions, steps for avoiding clutter, ensuring cigarette safety, and responsibility to closing or opening the kitchen. Train staff to operate fire safety equipment such as fire extinguishers and fire suppression systems. Finally, even though commercial kitchens are bustling environments with pressing staffing needs, instruct every new employee about kitchen best practices and fire safety measures as soon as they join the crew. Never wait to train your employees or it could be too late.

If you have questions or concerns about your kitchen, hood vent or exhaust system, give Cornerstone Commercial Services a call today. We offer free onsite evaluations and estimates with no obligation. Call us today: 1-800-274-3905.

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