Restaurant Fire Protection Basics
As we emerge from the shutdowns and limitations due to COVID-19, many of us are likely looking forward to the day when our favorite restaurant will be able to operate at full capacity. Full tables, a packed bar area, people sitting in a waiting area, and a ton of activity in the kitchen will be good for local businesses and for people’s need for more in-person social interaction.
As we look forward to those days, this blog offers an introduction to some of the basic concepts that are used for the protection of customers, employees, and the building itself. For the purpose of this blog, we’ll be talking about dine-in restaurants with full kitchen capabilities that are assembly occupancies (defined as having an occupant load of 50 or more persons).
NFPA statistics show that for eating and drinking establishments, the majority of fires occur in the kitchen and specifically involve cooking equipment. With that in mind, this blog will center around kitchen safety, but first let’s address some of the general fire safety provision that also apply to dining areas.
The ability for patrons to evacuate the restaurant in the event of a fire must be adequately provided and maintained. For restaurants with an occupant load of 50 or more, which would classify them as an assembly occupancy, the main entrance must be sized to be able to accommodate at least one half of the total occupant load. Other exits must be provided to handle the additional capacity with the total number being based on layout and maintaining acceptable travel distances.
Some common areas of concern regarding safe egress include the arrangement of chairs and tables cutting down on the available aisle accessways as well secondary exits being locked, blocked, or obstructed by storage.
Whether or not a fire alarm system is required can come down to many variables but if it is a standalone building it is only required to be provided with a fire alarm system where the occupant load is greater than 300. Where required, the system will need to be initiated by one of or a combination of manual operation (pull stations), automatic detection, or sprinkler system waterflow. Notification of the occupants is required to be a voice announcement and include visible signals.
Sprinklers have not traditionally been required for all restaurants. Beginning with the 2021 edition of NFPA 101 Life Safety Code®, restaurants that are assembly occupancies of new construction will require sprinkler protection. Like fire alarms, a lot of variables can play into the need for sprinkler protection, including construction type, height, other uses of the building, and more. Where considering a standalone building used only as a restaurant its classification as an assembly occupancy does not require sprinkler protection for any existing construction unless it can also be considered a nightclub, dance hall, or discotheque in which case they are required for occupant loads over 100.
Kitchen Fire Protection
Wet-chemical extinguishing system
As referenced earlier, the majority of fires in restaurants are caused by cooking equipment. For this reason, any cooking equipment used in processes that produce grease-laden vapors must be provided with ventilation and a fire extinguishing system. The fire extinguishing systems must be listed to UL 300 or equivalent standards which is currently only achieved by wet chemical extinguishing systems. The wet chemical is able to separate the oil and air for a sufficient amount of time to allow complete cooling. These systems are most commonly activated automatically through the use of fusible links that are in the exhaust airflow and have a manual release that can also be used by staff in the area. The manual release should be located in the path of egress from the space to allow for safe use.
Some common issues with the fixed extinguishing systems include the caps on discharge nozzles being taken off for day-to-day use. These caps prevent grease from getting into and clogging the nozzles and are designed to blow off when the system activates. The rearrangement or replacement of cooking equipment can also be problematic as the systems are specifically designed for the original equipment, changing these out without analyzing the system could result in a failure to extinguish a fire.
Class-K Fire Extinguisher
While the fixed extinguishing system is intended to be the primary means of extinguishment, at least one portable fire extinguisher is also required to be provided in the kitchen area. Extinguishers in kitchens need to be Class K to be appropriate for use on the cooking medium. Signage is required at the extinguisher in the form of a placard that is conspicuously placed near each Class K extinguisher that states that the fire protection system must be activated prior to using the fire extinguisher.
Inspection and Maintenance
Routine inspection and maintenance of cooking equipment, the hood and exhaust systems, and fire extinguishing equipment (including fire extinguishers) are vital to ensuring that protection is maintained consistently for the restaurant. In addition, instructions need to be provided to new employees on hiring and to all employees annually on the use of portable fire extinguishers and the manual actuation of the fire-extinguishing system. Hoods need to be inspected for grease buildup at a frequency that is typically semi-annually for most restaurants but can be more or less frequent, depending on the type and volume of cooking. When that inspection finds grease buildup the hood and exhaust system must be cleaned.
NFPA 96 Standard for Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations, 2021 2021
The fire extinguishing systems must be maintained at least every 6 months and all actuation and control components, including remote manual pull stations, mechanical and electrical devices, detectors, and actuators, must be tested for proper operation. Fusible links of the metal alloy type and automatic sprinklers of the metal alloy type must also be replaced at this interval.
This is meant to be a high level overview of some of the major fire protection and life concepts for restaurants. There are many more details on each of the items covered in this blog and there are others that were not included here but still must be provided for a full compliant arrangement. NFPA 96 Standard for Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations, is a great place to start to find more information. NFPA 10 Standard for Portable Fire Extinguishers, NFPA 13 Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, NFPA 101, and the locally adopted building code should all be referenced for a full understanding of the requirements.
I hope this was helpful as an overview. If you have any questions or would like to see a more in-depth discussion on any of the items covered, please let me know in the comments.