3 Fire Safety Risks of Food Trucks

Read up on key factors in food truck fire safety. Shown is a taco truck operating on a city street.
Image: Pixabay

Who regulates food trucks? Learn the fire safety risks local governments should be aware of and access downloadable permitting resources and guidelines.

Food trucks are becoming quite the common sight in cities across the country, and just as much so on campuses. Food trucks are seen as a low-cost option as opposed to brick-and-mortar restaurants, which has led to their rapid growth.

Incidents & Proliferation

Food trucks are appearing faster than authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) can figure out how to make sure they are operating safely, and this has led to several high-profile incidents.

On July 1, 2014, a food truck exploded in Philadelphia. The woman who owned the truck and her daughter were critically burned and died three weeks later. This was a high-profile incident primarily because the explosion was caught on a nearby security camera and spread very quickly over the internet.

More recently, an incident happened at George Washington University, where a food truck parked on the street adjacent to the campus was completely destroyed. Three people were injured, two critically, but all are recovering.

These incidents, and others, raise the question of exactly who has jurisdiction over food truck safety. Is it the fire department? Health department? Federal Department of Transportation? The local agency that regulates food establishments?

The food truck industry is a growing one. According to data collected by Campus Firewatch from Mobile-Cuisine.com and other sites:

  • $1.2 billion: Annual food truck revenue
  • 12 percent: Industry revenue increase over the past five years
  • 4,130: Food trucks in the U.S.
  • $291,000: Average revenue generated per truck
  • $85,000: Average cost of a food truck
  • $90,000: Total startup costs (including truck)

Given the inherent mobile nature of this business, social media plays a large role in helping people find where their favorite truck might be set up on any given day. Websites focusing on helping customers find the trucks have also popped up in Boston and in New York.

Fire Safety Risks

There are three predominant ones that are unique to food trucks, besides the normal risks on any vehicle that involved gasoline or diesel fuel — propane, cooking operations and portable generators.

#1 Propane

Propane is used to fuel the cooking appliances and are stored in cylinders of different sizes, such as the typical 20-pound cylinder seen on backyard barbecues, or larger 100-pound cylinders. What makes it different for a food truck is that the vehicle is constantly on the move and the connections and fittings are getting jarred with every bump and pothole. This can lead to connections becoming loose or structural failure of some component.

Also, if a truck is in heavy use, the tanks are getting swapped out more fre- quently, which can lead to the potential for leaks to occur from fittings that may not have been tightened sufficiently.

Furthermore, there are now propane cylinders with incredible explosive potential in areas where there can be a large congregation of people, such as fairs or exhibitions, or on any typical street in a large city with several food trucks lined up. Because of the explosive power of the cylinders, FDNY considers food trucks to be a potential terrorist threat.

According to Jacqueline Wilmot, a fire protection engineer with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) who focuses on food trucks, about 68 percent of the incidents are related to propane, either leaks or structural failure of a tank. Tanks are stamped with dates that tell when they are supposed to be hydrostatically tested, “but sometimes they are just painted over.”

#2 Cooking

While cooking, itself, is an ignition source and a danger, the ventilation system where grease can build up is also a concern. There are already a number of requirements for cleaning and maintaining exhaust hoods and fixed suppression systems that also apply to food trucks.

#3 Portable Generations 

Besides the fuel needed for cooking, the trucks need electricity as well and this is provided by portable generators. The question arises, what fuel do they use? Gasoline? Propane? If gasoline, how often do they need to be refueled and how is it done? Are gasoline cans carried on the truck, creating yet another hazard that must be considered?

Both propane and cooking operations are well known hazards and have a number of codes, standards and regulations governing them. The problem is when they come together in a food truck, a unique situation arises where the question is, who regulates them? In larger cities, such as Chicago or Philadelphia, they can write their own regulations, and do so, when it comes to food trucks.

Food Truck Regulations

In Chicago, they were looking at it proactively, and this was because of President Obama coming to visit the city. According to Wilmot, “The Secret Service asked the Chicago Fire Department what kind of regulations they had, and the answer was none.” As a result, the fire department put together a team to develop regulations to develop these regulations and a mechanism for enforcing them.

DOWNLOADABLE RESOURCE:

The city of Chicago has developed a comprehensive Mobile Food Vehicles Fire Safety Permit Consultation Packet that is available from Campus Firewatch homepage.

In communities that are not able to impose their own regulations, food trucks often fall into a gray area. NFPA is working to help address this gap by developing information to help guide AHJs and code language that can be adopted in NFPA 96, Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Structures.

A part of the problem is that not all jurisdictions adopt NFPA 96, or they may be several years away from updating their codes that reference 96, creating a gap. To help address this, the NFPA 96 committee is issuing their standards on food trucks as a “normative annex,” according to Wilmot. This provides a jurisdiction that has not adopted NFPA 96 to “adopt just the chapter, not the entire NFPA 96, that was the intent behind it,” explained Wilmot.

One of the problems is that there are no uniform regulations or guidelines for communities to use in regulating food trucks. Chicago is seen as one of the leaders in this area, having developed a comprehensive set of regulations and other communities are coming on board with the need as well and developing systems to inspect the trucks.

For example, in San Antonio, Wilmot explained that the process involves a food truck going to a parking lot, getting inspected by the fire department, then moving through other stations to get further inspections and then receiving a sticker for the windshield. This makes the process much easier on the vendor and also provides inspectors with a visual indicator of the truck’s inspection status.

Future of Food Trucks

Food trucks are certainly here to stay. Campuses may have the ability to regulate them within their own geographic boundaries, but as was seen in Washington, in urban environments the food trucks that are on municipal streets will fall under local jurisdiction, which may or may not be addressing the issue. There are model regulations out there that can be used, and in the meantime NFPA is developing guidelines.

Republished with permission from Campus Firewatch.

Read our previous coverage of mobile food regulations:

Mobile Food Vendor Regulations

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