Food Service Exhaust Systems

A near miss offers an opportunity to be proactive. After a recent fire sprinkler activation on a food-service line, there was a review of what caused the sprinkler to activate. The activation was not due to a fire or a problem with the sprinkler head. It was determined that the sprinkler activated due to misplaced equipment under the hood. An oven was placed too far forward, allowing the heat to rise to the ceiling instead of into the exhaust duct system. 

Talking with the kitchen management team, it was evident they did not move the cooking equipment back far enough under the hood after recent maintenance was performed. Facilities staff working behind the equipment left the stove where they found it, approximately four feet from the wall. Kitchen staff responsible for moving the equipment back into place were not aware there were specific requirements to place the front edge of the equipment a minimum of four inches behind the front face of the hood exhaust system. Had staff been aware of the requirement to keep equipment a certain distance under the hood, the sprinkler would not have activated.

Take Action to Avoid Potential Accidents

This incident was unintentional. There was clearly frustration among the kitchen staff - they didn’t know the specific code and standard for proper placement of the equipment. During the debriefing meeting, there was no finger pointing; everyone agreed this was just an accident that could have been avoided if the requirements for placement of the equipment were known. From the discussion, it was agreed upon that a review of all 37 cooking locations would be completed. Additionally, a simple guide would be created for kitchen management, maintenance and fire inspectors to follow. This guide would reference all the codes and standards that govern installation, maintenance and use of commercial cooking systems.

As development of the guide progressed, it was determined that there were at least 11 different codes (depending on local adoption) and 12 standards that must be followed when installing, operating and maintaining commercial cooking equipment. As all three groups came to understand the complexity of all the components, it became clear that a matrix listing all the systems that were present would need to be completed. Then, a detailed survey would be completed, consisting of a team of individuals from the kitchen and facilities staff, the contract suppression service provider and the fire inspector.

Pick a Starting Point

When it was also determined that completing all the surveys would take more than a year, the group decided to focus initially on systems related to deep fryers. The National Fire Incident Reporting System and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) both estimate 31 percent of cooking fires are related to deep fryers. Once deep fryer locations were completed, the team would review cooking range locations (18 percent of cooking fires), followed by cooking grills (11 percent of cooking fires).

To guide the survey, focus was placed on two NFPA standards. These address the most common areas where fires occur in kitchens. NFPA 96–Standard for Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations and NFPA 17A–Standard for Wet Chemical Extinguishing Systems. Both of these standards address the greatest risk of fire — the deep fat fryer.

Standard NFPA 96 discusses the minimum requirements for fire safety in cooking locations. It sets requirements for exhaust systems for processes producing grease-laden vapors or smoke. It also addresses manual and automatic fire-extinguishing equipment for locations with grease-laden vapors, automatic shut-off for all sources of fuel and power to equipment. Procedures for the use and maintenance of cooking equipment are included in this standard. 

Standard NFPA 17A discusses the design, installation, operation, testing and maintenance of pre-engineered wet-chemical fire-extinguishing systems. Most often, this is the one part of the cooking operation that is maintained. Service companies are typically contacted to perform inspections and maintenance at least semi-annually.

Institute Training

The last component to the review of cooking systems was related to people-based actions. Any built-in fire safety can be compromised if the users of the space aren’t aware of the basic elements of how they work - this was the core reason why the sprinkler head activated. A campaign was created to instruct kitchen staff on the basic elements of kitchen fire prevention. This campaign was geared towards changing unsafe behaviors and housekeeping. Line staff were trained to conduct regular inspections of the areas they work in each day.

There was no fire in the facility that created this program. They took a near miss as an opportunity to be more proactive about minimizing the risk of fire in their cooking operations. It was a lesson learned from a close call.

Mike Halligan is the president of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third-party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after 26 years as the associate director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He can be reached at mikeh@higheredsafety.org.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.

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