Fire suppression roundtable: Making kitchens safe


Safety in the commercial kitchen starts with a fire suppression system that offers a fast-acting and effective response to the kind of incident that every operator hopes they will never face.

But with hundreds of blazes breaking out in commercial kitchens every year, it is clear that the foodservice industry still has a major challenge on its hands. Catering Insight brought together a number of leading experts from across the supply chain and within the UK fire sector to address some of the key issues around business continuity in a commercial kitchen environment.

The panel included:

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– Derek Killaspy, Managing Director, Fireworks Fire Protection & Suppression Systems
– Sir Ken Knight, Director, Ken Knight Consulting & former Government Chief Fire & Rescue Adviser
– Mark Kendall, Director, Inox Equip (CEDA member)
– Paul Crumpler, Area Sales Manager, Halton Group
– Steve Elliott, National Sales Manager, Valentine & Cuisinequip
– Mark Healey, Chairman, Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Authority

There are reported to be more than 2,000 fires in commercial foodservice establishments every year and the data suggests this number doesn’t appear to be decreasing by any significant margin. Where does the problem lie?

Derek Killaspy: A lot of incidences are down to poor maintenance – you’ll have an establishment that has no protection but then there’ll also be no maintenance of the catering equipment or cleaning of ducts either. There are also other factors. We know of a restaurant that had a fire about three or four years ago which was caused by a fat fryer down in the basement of the building.

From what we understand, the restaurant had a fire system in place that would have required manual activation, but the only person in the area at the time was not trained on it so they did what any normal person would do when it caught fire and got out of the area quickly. But it meant that nobody could get in there to actually operate the system and consequently the whole timber frame building burnt down, along with the buildings either side of it.

The cost of insurance must have run into the millions and all for the sake of not having an automatic system that would have easily put the fire out and prevented it spreading. If you are talking about an increase in fires then there is a lack of awareness about how bad these fires can be. [[page-break]]

Sir Ken Knight: I conducted a review for government about the efficiencies in the fire and rescue service, and the truth is that fires are down, fire injuries are down and there is currently the lowest loss of lives in this country from fire that there has ever been.

When I started in the fire service some 40 years ago, there were 700 deaths a year. Now there are 160 deaths a year. Of course, you would say that this is really good news, but what masks this is that all the fire legislation is aimed at life safety, not property safety.

And I think what Derek is talking about is absolutely true: what we’re seeing is a considerable amount of property losses still. About 40% of medium-sized businesses that have a fire never recover again. Business people are talking about business continuity and business resilience – it’s business survivability.

I had one absolutely graphic example when I was London Fire Commissioner. It was a large, catastrophic incident that occurred when a fryer in a fast food unit of Heathrow Airport caught fire and shut the whole of the airport. Can you imagine how much that actually cost? That was a very small fire that probably just needed either suppression or cleaning of the ducting and maintenance. And I think that’s replicated over and over in a smaller or larger way.

Mark Healey: I was amazed when I looked at some of the statistics from Zurich, the insurance provider. 25% of accidental fires in commercial premises are started by cooking appliances and apparently around 40% of those are started by faults in electrical appliances or electrical wiring.

So coming back to what has been said, a lot of this is about maintenance, having the staff fire-compliant and ensuring staff are properly trained by a competent fire safety person. According to the statistics, most of the fires are started during the day by people actually working [on the appliance].

Derek Killaspy: And these are businesses that people can normally easily escape from, so the risk to life is quite low. But Ken’s point about business continuity is a really valid one. If you put the correct system in, your business continuity is secured. You’re not closed forever because it burned down, you’re not closed for two days while you’re cleaning because the system you’ve got has sprayed chemicals, you’re just closed for an hour or two while you quickly clean-up a little watermist and get cooking again.

Mark Kendall: One of the issues from a design and supply point of view is that you’ve got companies like ourselves that design restaurant kitchens across the country and obviously we work closely with the fire service and with building control, and we make sure all the standards are met.

But it’s what happens after handover – the training, the maintenance. And the big one is PPM, planned preventative maintenance. You’ll get customers thinking, ‘how much does it actually cost? Do I really need to maintain that system once a year? No, I’ll do it next year…”

Derek Killaspy: That’s where legislation needs to come in and take control.

Mark Kendall: When you’re a chain especially it’s very easy to strip those costs out. If you’ve got 16 restaurants in London for instance, and you can do one visit every two years instead of one every year, then that goes back to your point about the maintenance and duct cleaning. And I think that is absolutely prevalent throughout the industry. 

Paul Crumpler: You often find that it’s a balance between the capital budget and the capital expenditure up front, and then the maintenance is a separate budget and often a different department within the organisation. That’s still our biggest challenge. We advise upfront what cost of maintenance is going to be and how many visits are going to be required. And fire suppression is genuinely about every six months. But we’ll often get companies who’ll contact us and say, ‘I’ve had this system for four years now, can you come and have a look at it?”[[page-break]]

In the absence of any over-arching legislation, where does the responsibility lie for ensuring operators have the correct fire suppression systems and maintenance programmes in place?

Derek Killaspy: The operator certainly needs to take on board what equipment they’ve got and maintain it in the way they are maintaining everything else. The reason it gets put outside of their maintenance budget is because it’s not earning them money day by day, or they don’t perceive it as earning them money. The one time they need it, though, it’s going to save them an awful lot of money.

It’s exactly the same as not maintaining your car, you can get away with it for so long but at some point it will break down on the motorway. That is bad enough, but burning a building down for a short-term saving is much worse.

Sir Ken Knight: I wouldn’t start at maintenance, I think you’ve got to trail it right back, from the design through the installation, the commissioning, and then the maintenance. To start at maintenance is so far through that chain that if you haven’t got the design, installation and commissioning right – and certainly certification needs to be included in there as well – then actually the maintenance is too late anyway.

Paul Crumpler: And Heathrow Airport is a prime example. After the fire that was mentioned earlier we were heavily involved in redesigning Heathrow Terminal 5 and as part of that process we came up with a waterwash system that actually created a fire barrier within the canopy. The waterwash system cools the air stream and prevents the grease getting in the duct in the first place.

And that was purely because we addressed the fact that maintenance is not happening consistently in many places. It is all about design. We often see heavy bends that effectively allow a vat of oil to form. And if they’re not cleaned, those vats of oil serve as a fuel for that fire.

How much of an issue is cost or perception of cost as far as fire suppression specification is concerned?

Derek Killaspy: It is a bit like funding a car. You can either go to a garage and buy it outright or you can pay for it monthly for five years. The way we’re heading with these products is to provide leasing or rental schemes so that there is no argument for anybody not to have it.

All operators know they should have it, but the only thing that’s stopping them is they can’t or don’t want to afford it at the time. They are already spending however much on the new kitchen and fit-out and they don’t view it like they do a piece of production equipment even though this ‘extra’ is a very small amount compared to the overall amount.

Paul Crumpler: Yes, that’s the reality – they see it as a cost as opposed to an asset. If you look at the fryer and the cooking equipment and so forth, it gives them an ability to make something and sell it. When you’re looking at fire suppression or that aspect of the kitchen, it’s an added burden and a cost. It is something they want to try to minimise as quickly as they can, and that’s where the problem is.

Steve Elliott: I think you’re absolutely right. It is just a question of finding the right words and the right advice for people in order to get the message across. It is similar to when we advise people on the right fryers. We find out what the client’s menu is because very often people say they need a fryer so big when actually it is not the most efficient option. A small one with two tanks would actually outperform the big one they want. [[page-break]]

Mark Kendall: The tagline is education, isn’t it? Right the way through.

Mark Healey: Mark, you obviously deal with some huge concerns in terms of foodservice outlets and chains. Do you find that the bigger the concern, the more they’ll comply?

Mark Kendall: Absolutely. Their reputation is exposed.

Mark Healey: So really, from a fire perspective point of view, are you suggesting that the fire service should be focusing on educating the smaller, more specialist restaurateurs perhaps?

Mark Kendall: It is an engagement. And I think that engagement should be linked in with the environmental health office. So an environmental health officer would go into an establishment and they will look for certain things. If there’s a link between environmental health and fire safety, which there isn’t at the moment, not that I’m aware of, then that could get flagged up to the local fire officer. “I’ve been to this kitchen, it’s absolutely filthy, they haven’t cleaned, and it’s a recipe for disaster.” They can then intervene. But it comes down to local authority resource.

Sir Ken Knight: Those silos are broken down between trading standards and environmental health and all local government services. And certainly you’d expect one to flag up to another one that it’s got concerns there. Not all environmental health issues are fire issues, in fact very few will be. Where there are, perhaps there ought to be a strengthened link…

Steve Elliott: There’s a hotel that I’ve been to not far from here and the current line-up includes a twin-pan fryer on a rickety trolley that is not under the canopy and has a very flammable looking ceiling above it. Obviously it wasn’t designed like that, so it does make you think about the education side of things.

Mark Kendall: I think in general our industry is very compliant. We are talking about some isolated incidents, but those isolated incidents burn buildings down and make headlines unfortunately. Generally the projects that we specify are done in conjunction with people like Paul.

We’re not ventilation specialists, so we put a design together with the client and that goes out to the ventilation providers to ensure that we are protecting it with the right fire suppression system. Everyone’s on board. Then that’s handed over and signed off by building control and environmental health. The training is done and then the operation and manuals information goes over to the client with all the certification, including fire suppression. Then really at that point we move onto the next project.

Paul Crumpler: On the new builds, it’s far easier to get the procedures right. If you look at most sites in London now, that is a huge part of our work. Most restaurants are ground-floor sites with mixed-use residential and offices above. When you are dealing with the consultants and designers upfront, those steps will get identified and done correctly. Where you get stuck is with those smaller and more medium-size premises that don’t see that same level of risk analysis being done.[[page-break]]

In terms of driving that education, there must be some strong case studies that demonstrate how the correct system installation or maintenance programme can reduce risk or cut the time that it takes for a business to recover from a fire?

Derek Killaspy: Yes, there is, and there are also case studies against competitor systems, simply on the turnaround following activation as well. If you compare the Fireworks pump-driven watermist system to a wet chemical, for example, when that type of system goes off you’ve got the shut down, the clean-up, the refilling, and the cost from that – from the quotations we’ve had – tend to be about £1,000 a time.

There is no refilling with our system; it’s available for immediate use again in manual mode and it’s just a case of fitting a new nozzle to have it back in fully automatic operation. We offer an exchange service on the nozzles to keep the costs as low as possible, plus our maintenance costs are lower because there is so little that requires checking on our pumped watermist system.

Paul Crumpler: Again, it comes back to education: you’ve got to have someone who feels there’s a need for it in the first place.

Steve Elliott: Some of the chemical systems can cause problems with the electronics of the equipment. We’ve found in the past that perhaps a month down the line after one of these systems has been activated, there’s damage to the electrical connections and the switches and things like that.

Derek Killaspy: Whereas we use watermist in data centres, so we’re fairly confident it’s okay with electronics!

Mark Kendall: Unfortunately the majority of activations on wet chemical systems are malicious; you know it’s somebody who’s had a bad day, on their way out…

Mark Healey: There is a lot of talk about sprinklers at the moment, but actually within the fire and rescue services the mentality they are adopting now is that actually they quite like mist systems. There is that misnomer with sprinklers that if one goes off, the whole building is going to be under water. Misting is now being welcomed by fire and rescue services, and some of them are now in partnership with their local authority and local people to actually start to install this.


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Clare Nicholls

The author Clare Nicholls

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