One of my most vivid memories from my early days in the fine-dining kitchens I learned my craft in doesn’t have anything to do with the great food, cooks or menus I was privileged to work with. It is the recollection of how the entire kitchen staff reacted to the fire in the kitchen’s exhaust hood as smoke filled our workspace one night. From the pot washers, to each line cook to the chef – as he fearlessly wielded a fire extinguisher while he calmly, but very emphatically, directed all of us out the back door – every person acted with as much professionalism and seemingly practiced direction as they did on a normal busy Saturday night. I’m sure I took much of what I saw for granted that night as I watched it all go by. Looking back on the experience with years of perspective, I am aware of all of the forethought, preparation and effort that management must have put forth that allowed a potentially disastrous occurrence to resolve without a hitch.

None of us get into the restaurant business primarily because of a thrill we get or pride we feel from thinking about running a safe workplace. We do, of course, recognize the importance of doing so, and that’s what this article is about. The two most hazardous, business-threatening things we have to deal with as chef/operators is food borne illness and fire. Today, we’ll discuss the later.

Keep it Clean

One of the first steps you can take in terms of decreasing the likelihood of a fire in your establishment, and mitigating the effects if one should occur, is to simply do a great job with your basic housekeeping. Don’t store flammable items like chef coats, aprons or side towels (clean or dirty) near open flames or heat sources. This applies to other flammable items such as aerosol cans, cardboard boxes and some cleaning supplies, too. Don’t store pots, pans or other equipment where they will obstruct the discharge from your fire suppression system. Keep all walkways and storage areas clean, well lit and uncluttered. Fire can quickly spread in these areas if they are not; and don’t forget about the importance of these passageways as a means of escape for employees as well as customers. Be sure to regularly change all light bulbs, including those in exit signs. It’s not a bad idea to ascertain that you have a sufficient number of light fixtures in these often neglected areas to begin with. All of these things always apply, even during construction, repairs and re-modeling.

Be fastidious in keeping everything on your hot line as grease free as possible. Grills, griddles, stove tops, oven interiors, areas surrounding fryers and tilt-skillets (including floors and walls) should all be cleaned of any excess grease on a regular basis; daily in most busy kitchens. In addition to periodically scheduled professional cleanings, have your staff clean the filters and exterior surfaces of your exhaust hood on a regular basis as well.

Have your grease traps emptied regularly. They are much more prone to catching fire if they are overfilled. Communicate to your employees that you want them to tell you when they are aware of potentially hazardous situations in the kitchen or dining room. There is a good chance that they will notice faulty equipment that shorts out when it’s being used or has a frayed electrical cord, a leaking fryer, an ice machine you could fry an egg on, or notice the smell of natural gas or burning electrical insulation before you do. Thank them for keeping you abreast of the situation, and then act on their information. Repairing or replacing a piece of equipment, keeping the pilots lit and finding the source of a troublesome odor is always worth the time, effort and money it takes. Be on the lookout for overloaded electrical circuits, exposed or frayed wiring, improper use of extension cords and equipment that should be grounded, but isn’t. With anything electrical, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure.

Train your Staff

Train your cooks on the most basic aspects of fire safety on the hot line. Be sure that they know that the best way to put out a fire in a pan is to simply cover it, and that putting water on it will only make it worse. Dumping baking soda on it, if it’s handy, will also work. Explain to them that, in general, they should never put water on any grease fire. Have a Class K fire extinguisher nearby for such fires, and train everyone on your staff how to use it.

Speaking of fire extinguishers, understand that they come in various classifications that describe the specific type of fire that they’re designed and able to put out. Class A extinguishers work on combustible materials such as paper, wood, cloth, rubber and some plastics. Class B extinguishers are meant to be used of fires fuelled by combustible liquids like gasoline, oil-based paints and alcohol. Class C extinguishers are designed to combat electrical fires. Class D extinguishers are designed for fires involving combustible metals such as magnesium, sodium and titanium and are not common in commercial kitchens. Class K extinguishers are, however, as they are designed to work on fires fuelled by oils found in every kitchen: animal oils, vegetable oils and fats. While combination extinguishers, such as Class BC or Class ABC have historically had a place in restaurant kitchens, the only one now approved by OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) for use in commercial kitchens is a Class K. And there should be enough of them, in sufficient sizes, to make them convenient when their need arises. Your local Fire Marshal will no doubt be able to inform you of any local codes that pertain to this matter.

Using a fire extinguisher is easy, but knowledge of the steps and technique involved shouldn’t be taken for granted. Train each of your employees on the proper use of fire extinguishers using the mnemonic device: “P.A.S.S.” PULL the pin, AIM at the base of the fire, SQUEEZE the handle and SWEEP from side to side.

Keep your Equipment Inspected and Up-to-Date

Fire extinguishers should be professionally inspected once a year, at which time a hangtag on the unit will be marked to indicate that this inspection has been done. Any City inspector might want to check for this during his or her own inspection. Your staff should also perform periodic visual inspections of the fire extinguishers. At the very least, it will insure that they know where they are located. They should first check to see that each extinguisher is easily accessible, and not blocked visually or otherwise by any equipment or inventory. They should then check for any obvious physical damage such as rust or any leakage, and see that the pull-pin is intact and not missing. The pressure gauge should be inspected to see that the needle is within the green operating range of the dial. Lastly, they should check to see if the next professional inspection is past due.

While hand held fire extinguishers certainly fill a real need in fighting fires in commercial kitchens, the main tool to control a kitchen fire is the fire suppression system built into the exhaust hood. While this system is often called the “Ansul System,” realize that several companies do a good job producing this type of unit, Ansul being one of them. To some extent, the term “Ansul” has become to fire suppression systems what “Kleenex” is to tissues. These systems are activated by one of two ways. Either they are manually activated, or they go off when they detect a certain level of heat within the protected area, that is, the space under or in the hoods. Although the specifics vary from model to model, when the system detects a fire, or when the system is manually activated, the fire-extinguishing agent is discharged through nozzles into the cooking equipment, ductwork and hoods. The energy source for the cooking equipment, whether gas or electric, is also automatically turned off. In some systems, water is then discharged from the same nozzles, which serves to lower the temperature of the equipment, especially the grease in the fryers, which helps discourage re-ignition.

For many years, NFPA (the National Fire Protection Association) and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Association) considered hand-held fire extinguishers to be the “first line of defense” in fighting fires. Now, largely because of advances in commercial fryers and other cooking equipment, they have changed their tune and consider pre-engineered fire suppression systems, as described above, as the first tool to use in the event of a fire in a commercial kitchen. They suggest that hand-held extinguishers play a secondary role after the fire suppression system has been activated, or if the fire spreads beyond the protected area of the hoods, and for means of escape if the fire has spread to exit corridors. The newer fryers are better insulated to make them more energy efficient, and use oils that have a higher flash point (the temperature at which they ignite.) These two factors result in a unit that, when on fire, is so hot, and holds it’s heat so well, that the likelihood of its re-ignition when put out with a hand-held extinguisher is high. The combination of the fire suppression system’s ability to blanket the fire with a thick foam while simultaneously cutting off its heat source makes it much more certain that the fire will be put out once and for all. These federal agencies go so far as to discourage the use of portable extinguishers instead of activating the fire suppression system for even small fires under hoods, as any delay in activating the system gives the fire a chance to spread into the grease-removal filters and ductwork where they can grow, undetected, until they’re anything but small.

Have your hoods professionally cleaned on a regular basis. Since it’s important that the nozzles be properly aimed and sized for each piece of equipment under the hood, notify your fire suppression equipment maintenance provider of any equipment changes you make under your hoods so that they can make the necessary adjustments and keep your system operational and up to code.

Your employee manual should have a section in it on fire safety, and each employee should be trained and sign off on the main points. They should include: the location of the fire suppression pull and when to use it, the location of all exits, the location of all hand-help fire extinguishers and how to use them (P.A.S.S.), instructions to call 911 in case of a fire, the importance of reporting any fire hazards (frayed wires, smell of gas…) to their supervisor immediately, where to exit and congregate outside the building in case of a fire, and any other information you deem important for your particular situation.

There should be a monthly safety checklist that is used, signed and filed. It should include, among other things, checking to see if the professional hood cleanings are up-to-date, that all exits are free and clear of equipment or debris, that all fire extinguishers are in good condition, that all electrical appliances are in good condition and are grounded, that no flammable materials are stored near open flames or heat sources, that electrical sockets are in good condition, and anything else of importance specific to your operation.

Your managers should have a simple and specific plan in case a fire does occur. In a loud, clear voice, employees should be told that there is a fire, and to leave the building carefully and quickly, and meet at a specific location outside. If the fire suppression system has not been activated automatically, do it manually. Call the fire department. Get a head count to determine if anyone is still inside. Employees should not stay in the building and try to fight the fire themselves. That’s the Fire Department’s job.

The best way to fight a fire in your kitchen is to prevent one from happening to begin with. If, in spite of your best efforts, you do have a fire, the best way to deal with it is to have everyone prepared in advance as to what to do through training and re-enforcement.