Combine naked flames, hot fat and young chefs showing off – it won’t take long for a fire to jump off the stove and take control of your kitchen. At the minimum you’ll be closed for a few hours, or it could be days or weeks, as happened recently at several restaurants, including Sydney's Rockpool Bar and Grill and Stokehouse in St Kilda.
In 10 years of restaurant and café ownership, I only had two big fires, and they burnt out the exhaust ducts, not the building. Both times they were caused by staff doing ‘crazy pans’ – adding an extra dose of flambé to a sauté pan or grill. With helpful tradesmen and a very large cheque, we were back in business the next day, shaken and much wiser.
Fire, like armed robbery, is something most people have never experienced - posters, reminders and practice drills can have an unreal air about them. For maximum impact in your fire training (as with armed-holdup drills), find a staff member who has experienced a fire and ask them to tell others about it. How commonsense goes out the window, and how steady hands and preparation can save the situation. Or not.
Most landlords require a fire policy, and it will have detailed requirements about the proper cleaning of hoods, filters and ductwork. None of this is cheap, but a catastrophe is worse. Fire suppression systems and sprinklers are standard in modern kitchens, but not in older kitchens. If you don’t have them, you need to double down on other control systems like extinguishers and fire blankets. Your insurance company and the fire brigade will also have a raft of good training materials – often long and detailed, covering just about every situation.
Appoint your most pedantic supervisor as the fire safety monitor and trainer. WH&S policies will mandate people for particular roles in the business, so fit the job to the personality. This is the person who won’t accept excuses for shortcuts and ‘do it later’ attitudes – they don’t mind being unpopular around safety issues. They insist that the new apprentice has proper training, even if chef says she can’t be spared.
Many fires are put out quickly, but it’s important to think about else can go wrong…
- The fire blanket will go missing – someone put it in a drawer.
- Fire extinguishers are out of date – they’ve got date labels for a reason!
- Kitchen equipment has been moved into dangerous positions – fryers too close to flames or salamander grills over stoves.
- Power-boards and double adapters turn into a big knot of risky cords, waiting to short-circuit.
- Greasy rags and tea towels are hazardous – if you wash and dry your own kitchen linen, understand that domestic machines can’t get all the grease out. Load them into the dryer and they can easily go up in flames – crazy, but it happens!
- Untrained staff are cooking - they can make a great sauce, but haven’t been shown the fire drill or evacuation route.
- The super-efficient kitchen hand has very limited English – everyone assumes he can understand safety posters. Does his training need some extra steps?
- The fire door is propped open as an exit – it’s kept closed to avoid drafts that will make fires worse.
- The fire doors can’t be opened – there have been may nightclub tragedies because escape doors are locked from the inside.
- Someone will be forgotten – who’s on the second floor of your building who might be overlooked when everyone clears out?
- Some customers will leave without paying – it’s a pity, but can’t be avoided. Your safe should be fireproof, so hopefully it has most of the takings.
Stay safe and keep everyone conscious that they’re working in a highly-flammable workplace.