For most restaurant owners and professional chefs, their kitchen's fire suppression system is not something to which they give much thought on a daily basis. Unlike quality ingredients, a delectable menu, and a top-notch staff, this piece of commercial kitchen equipment does nothing to improve a restaurant's reputation and get eager diners in the door. But much like the brake system of a car, if a commercial kitchen fire suppression system fails to work when needed, the results can be catastrophic and deadly.
Statistics show that fire is the number one danger within the walls of a commercial kitchen. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, a branch of FEMA, there are approximately 5,600 restaurant fires each year in the United States. While thankfully most of these fires do not result in a death, they do cause roughly 100 injuries and well-over $100 million in property damage annually.
Preventing fire in your commercial kitchen
In a perfect world, you will never need to use your kitchen's fire suppression system, thus goal number one is to avoid having a fire in the first place. The majority of commercial kitchen losses are caused by grease accumulation in the cooking area and exhaust system and the subsequent malfunction of the kitchen fire suppression equipment.
Though it is impossible to completely eliminate all chances of having a fire in your restaurant or catering kitchen, there are two crucial steps you can take to dramatically reduce the likelihood of a disaster.
Clean the exhaust hood and ductwork
The purpose of a commercial kitchen's exhaust hood and ductwork system is to gather cooking vapors and move them out of the building. However, during the ventilation process, particulate matter inevitably gathers on the system's surfaces, creating a highly flammable grease residue. As a result, hoods and ducts that are poorly cleaned are the cause of 21 percent of all commercial kitchen fires.
The National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) fire code for commercial cooking operations (NFPA 96) advises that commercial kitchen exhaust systems be professionally cleaned with the following frequency to help reduce the likelihood of a grease fire:
- Monthly for establishments that use solid fuels such as wood or charcoal
- Quarterly for kitchens that operate at a high volume (e.g., open 24/7), and/or do extensive frying, charbroiling, or wok-cooking
- Semi-annually for kitchens that operate at a moderate volume
- Annuallyfor low-volume cooking operations (e.g., churches, day camps, seasonal businesses)
Finding a commercial kitchen exhaust system cleaning company: Not all cleaning companies are created equal. A trained professional will clean the commercial kitchen exhaust system to the bare metal, from the exhaust fan, through the duct(s), and including the hood. A not-so-professional may clean the grime from the visible portions of the hood but leave the ducts and fan (i.e., the parts a restaurant owner cannot see) un-cleaned. It is clear which method results in the safer kitchen environment. We recommend finding a reputable commercial kitchen exhaust system cleaning company that is certified by the International Kitchen Exhaust Cleaning Association (IKECA).
Maintain the fire suppression system
- Since the cooking process naturally produces grease-rich vapors (especially when deep fryers, woks, griddles, and broilers are in use), the fire code NFPA 17a requires all commercial kitchens be equipped with a properly installed and maintained automatic wet chemical fire suppression system to protect from a fire in the kitchen's hood and exhaust system, grease removal system, or on cooking equipment. These automatic extinguishing systems are often referred to as “Ansul systems”, based on a popular brand name.
Just as your vehicle requires regular tune-ups to ensure it is running safely, NFPA 17a stipulates that inspection and maintenance of the commercial kitchen fire suppression system be conducted every six months by a trained and certified technician in order to keep the kitchen up to code. A maintenance visit by an experienced technician can also help prevent the downtime and costly clean-up of an accidental system discharge.
Finding an experienced fire suppression system technician: An in-depth inspection and comprehensive maintenance check of a commercial kitchen's fire suppression system by an experienced technician takes time–typically about an hour. The guy who is in and out in 10 minutes, hangs a new tag, and collects his pay is likely not doing a thorough job, and ultimately is not doing you and your business any favors in terms of safety. We recommend finding a technician who is certified by the National Association of Fire Equipment Distributors (NAFED).
Invest in kitchen fire prevention for your business
A fire in your commercial kitchen can endanger lives, sink your finances, and destroy your livelihood, so the money spent on keeping your kitchen's equipment properly cleaned, maintained, and inspected is well-worth the investment. If you own or manage a commercial kitchen–whether it be a restaurant, banquet hall, or catering kitchen–it is crucial that you:
- Ensure kitchen staff is trained on the techniques required to adequately clean greasy cooking surfaces.
- Contract with a reputable kitchen hood and exhaust system cleaning company to have your equipment professionally cleaned on a regular basis (see recommended frequency above).
- Find a qualified distributor to install a high-quality fire suppression system.
- Choose an experienced vendor who is approved by local code enforcement agencies and insurance representatives to inspect and maintain your fire suppression system semi-annually.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so take these important steps to protect yourself and your business from a commercial kitchen fire and the potential for a catastrophic loss.