Straight from the Field: Teachable Moments

Contributed By Jen Mesta, Environmental Health Specialist

Restaurant fire clip art

Fire Rages and Sparks Complaint
Happily out on a Saturday night with my boyfriend at Trader Joe’s, I received an unexpected call from one of our supervisors: We had received a complaint through Poison Control about a local restaurant that was currently open for business and smelled like it had been on fire. The supervisor made an effort to contact other inspectors with no success. I hung my head, grimaced at the thought of ending our lovely night, and dutifully offered to go check it out.
In retrospect, I am grateful to have seen a nighttime food service in full swing and in the heat of production at a charred cooking station. The first manager I spoke to was aware of the facility’s recent fire but had no details to give me. Luckily, another manager arrived at the door, and he had all the details!
We started to walk down the cooking line to survey the damage at the cook station, but I was forced to stop at a major violation unfolding right before my very eyes! A central hand sink was overflowing onto the floor because it was being used to thaw shrimp (ugh), and contaminated water from the overflow was dripping into an open container of raw nuts. (UGH!) “Sorry, new guy”, says the manager as he quickly corrects the problems. (You can’t make these stories up!)
Further down the line, we assessed the fire damage that occurred when a night cleaning crew member haphazardly pulled out a fryer. He heard a hissing sound from a gas leak and instinctively shoved the fryer back against the wall. Suddenly, there was a “POOF” from the igniting gas and flames that shot down the line. The flash fire damaged water lines, gas lines, and major equipment. The ANSUL system above the cook line shot out fire suppression chemicals, and the sprinkler system sprayed water that ruined light ballasts and ceiling tiles.
Long story short”ish”… the food stored on the line was discarded, all damaged materials were replaced, and a major “front to back” cleaning of the facility took place. Linen was bagged up for laundry service while dishes, utensils, and cookware were cleaned using the dish machine and three-compartment sink. The fire department inspected all of the systems and cleared the restaurant for operation. Great! I couldn’t have done a better job myself!
The one thing the management failed to do was contact the health department for a “post-fire” inspection that would have determined what needed to be corrected before the facility resumed operation—This is very important. Nevertheless, I was quite impressed by their ability to turn around a really awful situation so quickly and after my visit, I’m glad to say we’re all on the same page.