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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

By Spc. Leigh Campbell], via Wikimedia Commons
By Spc. Leigh Campbell, via Wikimedia Commons

Cooking comes with inherent risks. One of the biggest risks facing commercial kitchens? Fires. Even the cleanest, most well-ordered kitchens have equipment like deep fryers, stoves with open flames, charcoal ovens, electrical panels, greasy rags, and exhaust ducts, all of which can start a kitchen fire if proper precautions aren’t taken.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to identify restaurant kitchen fire hazards and prevent them from occurring. By scheduling regular inspections, implementing fire safety measures, and maintaining equipment properly, you can significantly reduce the risk of fire.

Cooking Hazards
Experienced chefs know the joys of cooking on quality commercial kitchen equipment. Unfortunately, the high heat that makes these appliances so efficient is also what makes them potentially dangerous. About 57% of restaurant fires involve cooking equipment. No amount of cooking experience can completely rule out kitchen fires in a situation where oils can come into contact with open flames at high temperatures.

The best defense against a cooking equipment fire is an automatic extinguishing system. All cooking equipment that produces grease vapors needs to have a system like this in place to detect and put out fires before it is too late. Traditionally, most kitchens have been equipped with a dry chemical extinguishing system. A dry chemical extinguishing system generally uses sodium bicarbonate in order to remove oxygen from the source and suffocate the fire.

While a dry chemical system works well for animal fat fires, more and more kitchens have switched to cooking with vegetable oils. Vegetable oils burn at a higher temperature than animal fats, so if they do ignite a traditional dry chemical system will not be effective to put it out. For this reason, most restaurants have switched to a wet chemical extinguishing system. A wet chemical suppression system uses potassium acetate that foams and creates a layer keeping the oil from reigniting, and cools it off to stop it from splashing.

In addition to an automatic suppression system, you should keep a Class K fire extinguisher at least 30 feet from the cooking area. If for some reason your automatic system fails to activate, or does not manage to contain the entire fire, you need to have a backup accessible. By keeping it away from the cooking area you ensure that it is accessible without putting you or your staff in danger of going near the fire. Your extinguisher should also be serviced by a professional at regular intervals.

Grease Build-Up
While you might be aware of the dangers of the grease in your frying pan, you should be paying just as much attention to the grease vapors leaving your pan and settling on your duct hoods and filters. Grease cannot be avoided in a commercial kitchen, but addressing grease build-up at regular intervals can decrease the risk of this build-up catching fire.

Your hood filters are an extremely important part of your restaurant’s ventilation system. If your filters become clogged, unfiltered smoke can find its way into your ducting and lead to grease build up inside it. In order to prevent this, your hood filters should be cleaned every day. You can put your filters through the dishwasher (as long as you don’t use any corrosive bleach) or just rinse them with soapy water.

Exhaust hoods also need to be cleaned at regular intervals. You should also have them inspected by a professional regularly. The frequency of your duct inspection and cleanings depends on your cooking volume and whether or not you use solid fuel. You should expect to do it at least semi annually, however. In order to clean your exhaust hoods, spray them with a degreaser and wipe off with a cloth. Particularly stubborn grease may require a scraper to remove completely. If so, use a plastic scraper to avoid damaging the hood’s surface.

Solid Fuel Dangers
While the dangers of grease build up in commercial kitchens are well known, the risks of cooking with solid fuel like coal or wood or less discussed. Solid fuels require special attention and maintenance to make sure your restaurant kitchen is safe. Cooking with wood releases a chemical called creosote. Creosote vapor condenses as a liquid and can build up inside exhaust hoods and ducts. Creosote burns at a high temperature, and it burns even hotter when combined with grease.

In order to prevent creosote buildup, make sure you have a dedicated exhaust system for any solid fuel cooking devices equipped with a spark arrestor. A spark arrestor keeps sparks and embers from entering the ventilation system and igniting any buildup. The combustion chamber should also be scraped clean weekly, and ash cleaned out daily and stored at least 10 feet away from the kitchen and other combustible materials in a covered, metal bin. Exhaust systems serving solid-fuel cooking equipment, like wood-burning or charcoal-burning ovens, require monthly inspection to keep excess build-up in check.

Spontaneous combustion is much more common than you may realize and poses a real risk in commercial kitchens. If oily towels, greasy rags, or paper products saturated in grease reach high enough temperatures they can ignite and burn rapidly. Two possible scenarios for spontaneous combustion are dirty linens or trash awaiting pickup. In both situations, the grease or oil oxidizes which causes a rise in temperature.

This heating process is exacerbated if linens are kept in a plastic bin instead of a laundry bag. The risk also increases if either linens or waste bags are left in a hot location in the kitchen or outdoors. Proper ventilation for dirty linens and careful disposal of kitchen waste can reduce the risk of spontaneous combustion.

Faulty Electrical Equipment
Electrical failure and malfunctions were a factor in 16% of restaurant kitchen fires between 2006 and 2010. Electrical fires are especially hazardous because the electricity creates a constant source of ignition for the flames.

Since most restaurant kitchen equipment relies on electricity in some way, regular electrical inspections are crucial for fire prevention. Additionally, check for hazards like frayed cords and wiring as well as cracked or broken switch plates. Keep combustible items away from power sources and make sure extinguishers suitable for Class C electrical fires are easily accessible.

If You Can’t Take The Heat…
Even the best fire prevention plans can fail to address every situation where a kitchen fire might occur. This is why it is so vital to have the right fire suppression system in place and up to standard at all times. All staff should be trained to recognize potential fire risks as well as how to use fire suppression equipment when needed. By taking the right precautions and knowing how to properly handle fires, your kitchen staff should be able to handle the heat of working in a busy

About Carla Williams

Carla Williams works in customer service for Strike First USA. Visit Strike First’s website at www.strikefirstusa.com/ or like them on Facebook.

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