How to protect your restaurant from a fire

By Mike Rosenau, MBA, CSP, ARM

Risk control manager at Society Insurance

Editor's note: Fire Prevention Week is Oct. 6-12.

One of the biggest threats to restaurant and bar owners is fire, which can be a costly and potentially business-ending disaster. Grease accumulation, equipment malfunction and general poor housekeeping are all potential hazards.

From 2006 to 2010, an estimated average of 7,640 structure fires in restaurants and bars were reported to U.S. fire departments each year. Associated average annual losses included two civilian deaths per year, 115 civilian injuries and $246 million in property loss, according to the National Fire Protection Agency.

Although 71 percent of restaurant and bar fires remain relatively small, they are no less damaging to business owners. Loss of revenue, stress on staff and the cost of repairs make bouncing back an expensive task. On top of this, owners run the risk of losing customers to competitors when "Closed" signs hang in the windows.

Preparation can make or break a business

Almost all commercial cooking generates grease, which is a huge fire hazard owing to its highly combustible nature. Because of this, there is really no way to completely erase the threat of fire. However, there are precautions you can take to decrease the likelihood of a potentially catastrophic event.

Proper duct and hood cleaning

Exhaust hoods and ducts are designed to collect cooking vapors and residues. Poorly cleaned hoods and ducts account for 21 percent of all fires.


The National Fire Protection Association's fire code, NFPA 96, prescribes the minimum fire safety guidelines for cooking equipment, exhaust hoods, grease removal devices, exhaust ductwork and all other components involved in the capture, containment and control of grease-laden cooking residue. The NFPA 96 standards are considered necessary to provide an appropriate level of protection against damage to property and loss of life.

Restaurant owners should install a UL300-approved automatic fixed fire suppression system to protect their ducts, grease removal systems, hoods and commercial cooking equipment such as deep fat fryers, woks, ranges, griddles and broilers. This system should be serviced every six months.

In addition to complying with fire, health and building codes, a professionally installed exhaust hood and ventilation system helps maintain a clean, safe environment. Commercial cooking generates grease-laden air and other pollutants. An adequately designed exhaust system is vital to maintaining good airflow.

Kitchen hoods should be made of — and supported by — steel or stainless steel that meets minimum thickness requirements. Other approved materials of equivalent strength and fire corrosion resistance may also be used.

NFPA 96 recommends that hood and duct cleaning frequency be based on an individual restaurant or bar's cooking volume:

  • Monthly – For systems serving solid fuel cooking operations
  • Quarterly – For systems with high-volume cooking operations such as 24-hour cooking, charbroiling or wok cooking operations
  • Semi-annually – For systems serving moderate-volume cooking operations
  • Annually – For systems serving low-volume cooking

Grease filters are the first line of removal for grease-laden vapors. Clean filters improve ventilation and reduce the fire hazard significantly. Filters should be cleaned on a weekly basis for moderate- to high-volume cooking operations.

Empowering employees

Employee fire safety and response training — which should include a fire prevention plan and an emergency action plan — is a powerful defense against fire threats and can mean the difference between a localized fire and an uncontrolled blaze.

Fire prevention plan

In addition to basic fire training and an action plan, hands-on training can provide a better understanding of fighting fires. Besides knowing how to identify and fight different types of fires, employees should also be familiar with personal protective equipment and fire evacuation routes and should have actual training in using a fire extinguisher.

A basic fire prevention plan should include:

  • A list of all major fire hazards, proper handling and storage procedures for hazardous materials, and potential ignition sources
  • Procedures to control the accumulation of flammable and combustible waste material
  • Procedures for regular maintenance of safeguards installed on heat-producing equipment
  • Names or job titles of employees responsible for maintaining equipment

Emergency action plan

A well-developed emergency action plan should provide employees with basic training on what to do in the event of a fire. Employers should review the emergency action plan:

  • When the plan is developed
  • When the employee's responsibilities or designated actions under the plan change
  • Whenever there are updates to the plan

While proper employee training and prevention efforts can substantially mitigate fire risks, use of flames, oil and grease makes it difficult to fully fireproof restaurants. Instituting a prevention plan and maintaining a clean, properly cared for working space minimizes these hazards.

Mike Rosenau, MBA, CSP, ARM, is a risk control manager at Society Insurance.

Cover photo: Courtesy of Flickr's mattfour

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