For many of us, the term “food truck” likely conjures up images of greasy sandwiches from old “roach coaches.”
Today, if you walk around just about any metropolitan area during lunchtime, that image will be quickly replaced by fresh fusion cuisine from state-of-the-art mobile vehicles with long lines of people eagerly waiting to gobble it up. In fact, these “kitchens on wheels” are burgeoning in cities, college campuses, sporting events, business parks, carnivals and concerts, with food-truck festivals flourishing in communities nationwide.
The food-truck industry makeover largely took off as a result of the recession in the late 2000s when entrepreneurial chefs began looking for alternatives to traditional brick-and-mortar establishments. They found food trucks as a cheaper startup option. Although the concept has been thriving ever since, related fire safety regulations lagged. Jurisdictions worldwide conducted routine health inspections and issued vendor permits and/or business licenses for food trucks, but very few addressed the related potential fire hazards.
All that changed July 2, 2014, when there was a food-truck explosion in Philadelphia. Food truck operators Olga Galdamez, 42, and her 17-year-old daughter, Jaylin Landaverry-Galdamez, suffered third-degree burns and died three weeks later. The explosion injured 10 others, some critically. News stations across the country covered the story because it was the only food-truck explosion captured by a nearby surveillance camera, revealing the deadly impact a propane explosion can potentially cause.
At the same time, many people started asking questions: How often do incidents like this occur? What are the potential fire hazards associated with food trucks? How can these types of incidents be prevented?
Unfortunately, we don’t know how often such incidents occur. The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) is the reporting standard for fire departments to uniformly record and report their range of activities. While the NFIRS database comprises 70% of all reported fires that occur annually, including restaurant or vehicle fires, it does not code food-truck fires. So if you are looking for data on the number of food-truck fires/explosions that happen each year, you are not going to find it. However, if you spend some time on the Internet searching for this information, you will find multiple incidents that are not statistically captured.
What we do know is the most common fire hazards associated with food trucks include compressed gases, hot fryer oil, grills and electricity. Many food trucks utilize propane for cooking, while others use solid fuel (i.e., charcoal, wood burning) or electricity from generators, with oxygen and heat from the cooking operation readily present. As we all know, these factors represent the key components of the fire triangle: fuel, heat and oxygen.
A recent report (“Structure Fires in Eating and Drinking Establishments” by the NFPA Fire Analysis & Research Division) shows 21% of fires (1 in 5) in eating and drinking establishments had a failure to clean as a contributing factor to its ignition. That’s why the inspection, testing and maintenance of equipment is paramount. It ensures any grease accumulation is properly cleaned and removed to prevent the accumulation of grease and decrease the probability of grease fires.
Don’t let it spread
In addition, the clearance requirements between cooking equipment and the combustible material is important to prevent fires from spreading. Exhaust hoods, the first component of a ventilation system, work to capture smoke and grease-laden vapors, while the grease-removal devices remove grease from the air stream.
Meanwhile, requirements for the exhaust ducts system ensure the systems are constructed with the correct materials and connections so their integrity is not compromised should a fire occur inside the duct. They also ensure the system terminates at a location that does not exhaust contaminated air back into the vehicle or any adjacent structure.
In addition, a fire extinguishing system (this includes automatic fire extinguishing systems as primary protection and portable fire extinguishers as secondary) is required for the protection of grease-removal devices, hood-exhaust plenums and exhaust duct systems for cooking equipment that produce grease-laden vapors.
Wet chemical systems use an extinguishing agent that chemically reacts with cooking oil to create a thick blanket of foam to suffocate (remove oxygen) the fire and prevent the escape of combustible vapors and re-ignition.
For secondary protection, it is important to ensure the correct portable fire-extinguisher is installed. The type of cooking taking place will determine the type of extinguisher to be installed. Class K extinguishers are the only extinguishers that should be used for cooking-oil fires. After the correct fire extinguisher is selected, employees must be trained on the various types of portable fire extinguishers and how to use them.
The right recipe
In order to prevent food-truck explosions and fire incidents in the future, we need to establish requirements specifically for mobile cooking vehicles, which incorporate requirements from our existing codes and standards. With that very goal in mind, the International Fire Marshals Association (IFMA) developed a task group to review mobile and temporary cooking operations, recognizing there is no one code or standard that holistically addresses the potential fire hazards.
Although NFPA 1, National Fire Code, NFPA 58, Liquefied Petroleum Gas Code, NFPA 96, Ventilation Control and Fire Protection for Commercial Cooking Operations, and NFPA 1192, Standard for Recreational Vehicles, all contain requirements that contribute to addressing the fire safety hazards associated with mobile cooking operations, there are other safety concerns that are not currently addressed in these existing documents.
Consequently, the IFMA task group developed 16 pages of content covering permits, portable fire extinguishers, separation, communication, training, generators, wood burning and LP-gas to submit as a new chapter in NFPA 1 and NFPA 96. (View this document) The NFPA 1 Technical Committee, which worked to incorporate the language IFMA submitted into the National Fire Code, will meet in October for its Second Draft Meeting. (Visit www.nfpa.org/1 to follow the committee’s actions.)
The Technical Committee responsible for NFPA 96 developed a task group to incorporate the existing requirements within NFPA 96 as it applies to temporary cooking operations. (NFPA 96 provides the minimum fire safety requirements – preventative and operative – related to the design, installation, operation, inspection and maintenance of all public and private cooking operations.) Revisions include requirements for clearance, exhaust hoods, exhaust-duct systems, fire-extinguishing equipment, employee training, solid-fuel cooking, egress, communication protocol, as well as fire department access and procedures for inspection, testing and maintenance of cooking equipment.
These efforts collaboratively play a crucial role in reducing the potential fire hazard of cooking operations.
While NFPA is continuing to work toward incorporating requirements in its codes and standards, we have developed a fire safety tip sheet that provides general guidelines and recommendations for safely using and maintaining mobile cooking operations. It can be downloaded for free at www.nfpa.org/foodtrucksafety. This page also shows how cities such as Chicago, San Antonio and Rochester, N.Y., are taking action into their own hands to address this issue.