Fire Safety from the Outside In

When it comes to restaurant fire safety, the first place we think of is the kitchen.  While the kitchen is most certainly a flammable, high-risk area in all restaurants, there are other, less thought of spaces that can be equally damaging to your business.  Because when fire strikes, the bottom line impact in dollars and closed doors quickly rises to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Carelessness and other intentional actions or equipment failures account for over 11% of all restaurant fires(1).  It might seem like a small percentage until it happens to you.

Let’s take an outside in look at those often overlooked areas and small details.

Landscaping Mulch

Mulch may make your property appealing to the eye but without proper planning and fire safety considerations it could all go up in smoke, literally.

In speaking with both Bob Fonville, Director of Facilities at Fuddruckers and Wayne Jones an experienced facilities consultant, both recounted stories of mulch fires.  A patron tosses a cigarette into the mulch and it combusts.  If the mulch and building are such that the mulch abuts a decorative, flammable wall, suddenly walls are being torn down to extinguish a fire and damage is exponentially greater.

According to FEMA, mulch is a fire thread if it is within 10 feet of combustible material. (2)

The type and age of mulch coupled with its proximity to the building and other combustibles is important.  What might seem like a small risk (a little smoldering mulch that needs to be stamped out) can quickly become a major headache.  In August 2014, a fire at a Wendy’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan caused an estimated $125,000 o f damage and 90-day closure.  Cause of fire? Smoking object thrown into the mulch. (3)

Another instance in April 2014, a customer of a fast food store located in the Upper Midwest discarded a cigarette butt while entering the building to pick up his food. The cigarette butt fell into the mulch bed near the store’s entrance, catching the previous summer’s weathered landscape wood chips on fire.  Estimated repair time: approximately six to eight months. The total loss expected for both property and business interruption was estimated at nearly $2 million.(4)

Why more mulch fires?  With the prohibition of indoor smoking, customers and employees alike are forced to smoke outside creating a greater fire exposure to the exterior of the building.  Even with butt receptacles provided, many smokers discard smoking materials, including matches, into the landscaped areas as they enter or leave a building.  If mulch is dry or aged and the smoking materials are not fully extinguished, a fire hazard exists in an instant.

The National Fire Protection Association 1, Fire Prevention Code (2006 ed.), Section 19.1.2 states, “No person owning or having control of any property shall allow any combustible waste material to accumulate in any area or in any manner that creates a fire hazard to life or property.”  Some states, such as Massachusetts (527 CMR 17), also regulate what type of mulch and ground cover can be used.

How to mitigate your risks and stay safe:

  • Always check with local code.
  • Keep landscaped beds moist, particularly in dry climates and the heat of summer.
  • Provide adequate and clean receptacles for cigarettes (and enforce employee use of them).
  • Never mix cigarette waste with combustible trash.
  • Use only outdoor rated electrical cords and equipment for decorative and lighting features outside.
  • Maintain proper clearance between bulbs, space headers, barbeques and other heat sources and the mulch.
  • Avoid the use of flammable mulch at building entries, high traffic areas, or designated smoking areas (use noncombustible mulch such as rock or pea gravel instead).
  • Provide a minimum of 18-inch clearance between landscaped mulch beds, combustible building materials, and equipment such as gas meters, electrical, etc.
  • Provide plenty of clearance on the sides and top of outdoor headers.
  • Provide separation from any other combustibles, such as wooden fences or walls, roof overhang, trees with low branches, tablecloths and decorations.
  • Ensure properly rated fire protection equipment is readily available in outdoor areas and employees know where they are and how to use them.

Proper Air Pressure

Oftentimes a facility does not maintain an overall positive pressure in the building explained Bob Fonville.   A slightly positive pressure exists so when a door opens, it sucks the air out. This is important to bring in enough outside air or “makeup air” to compensate for air being released through the hoods and exhaust. This can lead to problems in air quality, comfort, and energy efficiency but most importantly from a fire safety standpoint, combustion gases from HVAC equipment gets back-vented.

Too much negative pressure in the kitchen can disrupt the capture of cooking vapors and cause gas-fueled appliances to “back-flue” (i.e., combustion by-products are drawn into the space rather than being vented to outside), drawing carbon monoxide into the room rather than up the flue and creating a potential flare up where a flame can exit the bottom of an appliance.

Storage Areas

Housekeeping matters and not just for cleanliness.  As Wayne Jones indicated, walk-ins, mechanical rooms, and storage spaces are a huge challenge when it comes to fire safety.  Space is invaluable to restaurants and often common sense is not common practice.

Small details missed come with big dollar damage. In York, ME, a local restaurant incurred over $150,000 of losses for a small fire that started in a storage area.(5)

Attend to:

  • Poor housekeeping. Fire spreads quickly in dirty, cluttered walkways and storage areas.
  • Faulty or frayed electrical cords that can spark and ignite an electrical fire
  • Storage of flammable materials: must be stored sufficiently away from open flames and heat sources.
  • Access points for electrical boxes, shutoffs, and fire suppression equipment. Do not lose valuable seconds if you need to access these in an emergency
  • Ensure at least 18-inch clearance between sprinkler heads and any storage. Wayne Jones explained that often materials are stacked so high in storage rooms that sprinkler heads easily break or do not have enough clearance to properly cover the area in the event of a fire.

Handle the basics and regularly inspect to make sure clutter creep and the busyness of day-to-day operations hasn’t put your facility at risk.

Fully Test Fire Safety Systems

Most general managers already know what needs to be done (at least at a high-level) and yet day-to-day actions often get in the way leaving the restaurant and the bottom-line in jeopardy. It’s just one more to-do where the little details do matter but often get overlooked.

Common sense and knowledge of codes and regulations does not always translate into common practice.  Actions are what keep your business running safely.


  • Preventative maintenance and cleaning of hoods and ductwork (quarterly or more frequently based on volume and food makeup).
  • Inspection of hoods, suppression systems, and sprinkler systems.
  • Educate all employees on where the main shutoffs are and how to properly use the right classification of fire extinguisher for different types of fires.
  • Test emergency lighting systems by load testing for an extended period of time.
  • Contain rooftop grease. Saturation on the roof and inside ductwork can turn a containable fire into a non-containable fire in an instant.
  • Know the codes: Codes for these systems can vary from location to location but common standards such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 96(6)and Underwriters Laboratories (UL)(7) for commercial cooking equipment does apply.


Nothing puts you out of business and into expensive repairs like a fire.  Time spent on the details at your facility both inside and outside is worth the effort.



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