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The Anatomy of a Restaurant Fire Claim

Restaurants excel at combining heat sources with fuel, such as food and oil. Unfortunately, those fuel sources occasionally spend too much time with the heat sources in uncontrolled ways, resulting in fire. Dozens of restaurants burn every month in the United States. The cause of these fires is many and varied, but successful investigations of this type of fire must be conducted in a disciplined and thorough manner, no matter which interest is represented.

Local and state fire codes adopt the requirements of NFPA 96, which governs the safe setup and operation of a commercial restaurant kitchen. NFPA 96 is a multi-section code which places the responsibility for preventing fires on the owners and operators of the restaurants. It can be divided generally into 3 major parts, each of which require special attention at the fire scene. 

NFPA 96 requires owners to operate and maintain listed cooking appliances in the manner required by their listing, to prevent any malfunction which may cause or contribute to a fire.

For restaurants that use deep fat fryers, the regular maintenance and service of the fryer controls is an important safety activity which, if done correctly, will prevent the overheating of oil. Fryers are generally outfitted with a thermostat, an oil level switch and a high limit temperature switch. Each of these controls contributes to the prevention of overheating and fires. The thermostat controls the temperature of the oil in the vat. The oil level switch prevents the fryer from firing or heating when the oil level is too low, thus preventing overheating. The high limit temperature switch cuts the power or fuel source to the fryer if a preset high temperature is reached. Each of these safety features is important in preventing fires in deep fat fryers.  Obviously, once a deep fat fryer catches fire the oil is a ready-made fuel source which contributes to an intense and fast-moving type of fire. 

Another important factor is the regular changing of the oil in deep fat fryers. The more often oil is used the faster it breaks down. As it breaks down the ignition temperature decreases. The equipment used to heat that oil is designed to operate with cooking oil that satisfies the generally expected performance requirements, and oil that has been used to often will slip below those requirements. In combination with other maintenance failures, the failure to regularly change cooking oil can be a contributing factor to the commercial kitchen fire.

Other types of equipment, such as broilers, grills and griddles are also prone to the type of flare-up fires that may spread in a restaurant. The upkeep of controls and cleaning of each of these types of appliances is critical to prevent fires from beginning in the first place.

Another major focus of NFPA 96 is that commercial kitchens are outfitted with an appropriate ventilation system to move grease laden vapors generated by cooking activities from the kitchen, where they can easily accumulate, out of the restaurant. The size and air flow requirements for hood and duct ventilation systems can be found in NFPA 96. 

Hoods are generally made of stainless steel, and are equipped with grease filters or grease traps to collect grease from the cooking vapors, which prevents the layering of the grease on the surfaces of the hood and duct system. Those grease filters must be cleaned by the operators of the restaurant regularly to prevent clogging and prevent the buildup of grease in the hood and on surfaces outside the hood.  Any accumulated grease is a potential fuel source to feed a fire.  Regular cleaning of the grease filters ensures the appropriate air flow from the cooking line to the exterior of the restaurant. That flow will prevent the buildup of grease in areas that could ultimately contribute to the spread of the fire.

Another critical requirement of NFPA 96 is that the hood and duct system is regularly cleaned, at an interval generally set forth by the local fire department or other authority having jurisdiction over the restaurant. Typically, authorities having jurisdiction require a restaurant’s ventilation system to be thoroughly cleaned every 3 months. Companies that specialize in hood and duct cleaning use solvents or other chemicals, along with high pressure water spray and scrubbers to remove any built-up grease which has accumulated on the surfaces of the duct and hood system. The failure to appropriately clean the hood and duct system is a major cause of property damage from commercial kitchen fires.

NFPA 96 requires that every commercial kitchen be equipped with an  automatic fire suppression system. Generally, these systems use a wet chemical substance to suppress incipient fires within the zone of protection, and before they can spread.

NFPA 17A governs the design, installation and servicing of these wet chemical fire suppression systems. The primary components of a suppression system include some mechanism for detection, such as fusible links, a manual and automatic control mechanism which causes the discharge of the suppressant, the liquid tank and valve system itself and either a gas shutoff valve or a shunt trip breaker, in the case of electrical cooking equipment. 

The systems are pre-engineered by the manufacturer, so that the installer need only appropriately measure the hood and ducts and count the appliances to calculate the size of the system. Installation is a matter of following the recommendations of the manufacturer. 

Once a system is appropriately installed and commissioned, the owner of the restaurant or commercial kitchen must regularly service the system. Wet chemical systems must be tested every 6 months to ensure appropriate operation of both the detection and actuation control system. Both NFPA 17A and the manufacturers of the systems require that an authorized service representative conduct these tests.

The regular servicing of the fire suppression system, along with any adjustments in its layout to account for changes in the commercial kitchen, will satisfy the requirements of NFPA 96 and contribute to the safe and fire free operation of the typical commercial kitchen.

The overwhelming majority involve some combination of violations of the requirements of NFPA 96 and NFPA 17A. It is critical to retain a fire consultant familiar with the concepts of fire protection engineering which resulted in the development of the NFPA 96 commercial kitchen system. Determining yard and of the kitchen fire is often the easy part. What is more difficult is determining why the fire occurred, why it spread and evaluating the potential liability of the parties involved in the ownership, design, maintenance and cleaning of the commercial kitchen system.

Commercial kitchen fires are expensive matters. They typically run between $150,000 and $500,000 in property damage in a stand-alone facility. If the restaurant as a total loss, that number goes up.  Restaurants in larger buildings or strip malls tend to create larger economic losses when they burn. Retaining counsel and consultants with a background in these types of systems will save money, both in defense spending and in indemnification costs, in virtually every commercial kitchen fire case. As with every fire claim, the earlier your interests are represented at the fire scene, the better position you will be in to deal with any claim might arise out of the fire.

Our firm has represented manufacturers and contractors in commercial kitchen restaurant fire claims for over 10 years, involving over 100 fires across the United States and Canada. Our familiarity with the experts, with the codes and with the products pays dividends for clients who hire us in these types of cases. 

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