Understanding restaurant fire safety regulations and fire protection systems protects your property, employees, and customers — and the health of your business
So, you own a restaurant or you’re thinking of starting one? It’s an in-demand business – 39% of adults would like to eat at restaurants more often, and 51% of diners eat out more than once a week, in an industry that does nearly $800 billion in sales annually.
John Taffer, the host of the hit show Bar Rescue and author of Raise the Bar: An Action-Based Method for Maximum Customer Reactions, states that it’s “a growth industry and there are plenty of opportunities to make money and create the legacy of smiles if you do it right.” And along with the “right” stuff of smart menu creation, staffing, and restaurant design is making sure you have the appropriate fire protection and life safety measures in place — to protect patrons and property and avoid costly restaurant closures and fire safety violations.
NFPA 101: Life Safety Code is a model code that provides the requirements for fire protection and life safety based on a building’s occupancy type and occupant load. A medium-to-large-sized restaurant holding 50 or more people is defined as an “assembly occupancy” and must meet the requirements in chapters 12 (new assembly occupancies) and 13 (existing assembly occupancies).
From the 2022 edition of NFPA 101
126.96.36.199* Definition — Assembly Occupancy. An occupancy (1) used for a gathering of 50 or more persons for deliberation, worship, entertainment, eating, drinking, amusement, awaiting transportation, or similar uses …
Smaller restaurants having an occupant load of “fewer than 50 persons,” however, are classified as mercantile occupancies (A.188.8.131.52), which are generally defined as “An occupancy used for the display and sale of merchandise” (184.108.40.206). Mercantile occupancies must meet lesser fire protection requirements than assembly occupancies, specified in chapters 36 (new) and 37 (existing).
The primary difference between assembly and mercantile occupancies are the limitations and allowances for the “means of egress” — in plain speak, the ways that are available to exit the property in an emergency. There are no requirements for fire sprinklers or fire alarms in smaller spaces. Larger spaces with a much bigger occupant load, however, are required to have these systems.
To determine what fire protection features are required, establish the total occupant load:
From the 2022 edition of NFPA 101
220.127.116.11 Occupant Load. The total number of persons that might occupy a building or portion thereof at any one time.
Occupant loads are determined by dividing the available floor area square footage by the occupant load factors shown in Table 18.104.22.168 of NFPA 101:
This table shows five areas that specifically pertain to restaurant occupant loads. To determine the occupant load, you measure the square footage of a given area and divide it by the allowed square feet per person. For example, a 500-square-foot kitchen would have an occupant load of 5 people, given the maximum of 100 square feet per person listed in the table above. Each type of area in the building should be calculated individually based on the numbers in the above table and then added up. In the end, you will have the total occupant load for the restaurant space.
The following occupant load limitations specific to larger assembly occupancies must be also used when they apply:
From the 2022 edition of NFPA 101
22.214.171.124.1 (new)/126.96.36.199.1 (existing) In areas not in excess of 10,000 ft2 (930 m2), the occupant load shall not exceed one person in 5 ft2 (0.46 m2).
188.8.131.52.2 (new)/184.108.40.206.2 (existing) In areas in excess of 10,000 ft2 (930 m2), the occupant load shall not exceed one person in 7 ft2 (0.65 m2).
Four types of restaurant fire protection systems
In general, very large restaurants will require all of these elements of fire protection, whereas smaller ones will only need the last two:
- A fire sprinkler system
- A fire alarm
- Cooking equipment protection
- Special protection for any hazardous areas
1. Fire sprinkler systems in restaurants
A fire sprinkler system is required in all establishments that are classified as dance halls, discotheques, or nightclubs, or when the total occupant load exceeds 300 persons. Many smaller restaurants still install sprinklers, however, as common wet systems are fairly affordable and lead to vastly greater fire safety, plus discounts on insurance. Any structures that use automatic fire sprinkler systems must install them in accordance with NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems.
If your building requires a fire sprinkler system, the system must also be properly maintained to work properly and pass fire inspections. NFPA 25: Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems outlines the requirements for water-based systems.
Many potential code violations are illustrated in the two-part QRFS article series: “NFPA 25: The 10 Most Common Fire Safety System Compliance Issues and How to Avoid Them.”
2. Fire alarm
A complete fire alarm system is also required for all assembly occupancies that have an occupant load of 300 or greater. Alarm systems must be installed in accordance with the following NFPA standards:
The fire alarm signals must be transmitted to a location that is constantly attended while the building is occupied. If the provision of a “constantly attended location” is impractical, the local fire authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) can require the system to be monitored by an off-site supervising station.
A fire alarm panel can, at first glance, seem intimidating. Demystify a panel and its operations by reading this blog post: “What is a Fire Panel and How Does It Work?”
3. Cooking equipment protection
All cooking equipment used in a commercial application is required to have specific protection. NFPA 96: Standard for Ventilation Control and Fire Protection of Commercial Cooking Operations outlines the full requirements for fire protection. The minimum requirements include a hood and duct system with cooking equipment placed beneath it. A fire extinguishing system must be installed within the hood, and an exhaust duct system must remove flammable, grease-laden vapors.
From the 2021 edition of NFPA 96
10.1.1 Fire-extinguishing equipment for the protection of grease removal devices, hood exhaust plenums, and exhaust duct systems shall be provided.
10.1.2* Cooking equipment that produces grease-laden vapors and that might be a source of ignition of grease in the hood, grease removal device, or duct shall be protected by fire-extinguishing equipment.
10.1.3 Fume incinerators, thermal recovery units, air pollution control devices, or other devices installed in the exhaust duct, shall be protected by an automatic fire-extinguishing system.
4. Special protections for hazardous areas
NFPA 101: Life Safety Code defines several areas of structures as hazardous. These locations are required to be separated from the rest of the building by a minimum of one-hour fire-resistance-rated construction or protected by an automatic fire extinguishing system. Hazardous areas are rooms or other areas that include:
● Boilers and furnaces
● Refrigeration machinery (other than domestic)
● Electric transformers
● Service equipment subject to explosion
● Storage of combustible supplies
● Storage of hazardous materials or flammable or combustible liquids
Other particularly hazardous areas such as laundries, maintenance shops, rooms used for the processing of hazardous materials, and spaces used for the processing of flammable or combustible liquids must be separated by a minimum of one-hour fire-resistance construction and an automatic fire extinguishing system. These spaces are less common in restaurants — but if any apply, you must comply with this extra protection standard.
Fire safety is essential in a successful restaurant
Most restaurants close during their first year of operation and the 70% that make it past year one usually close within three to five years. The 90% of restaurants in operation past five years will last for at least 10 years, however. Given these challenges, incorrectly installed fire protection or life safety systems — or a lack of them altogether — shouldn’t be why a restaurant fails.
As Bar Rescue host Taffer cautions owners, “You have a serious responsibility to provide a safe space. The public places its trust in establishments and that trust should be honored.”
Providing and properly maintaining appropriate fire protection systems and complying with restaurant fire safety regulations protect property and patrons in an emergency and keep you from running into expensive or even business-killing code violations.
To learn more about the top fire code violations cited by local government inspectors, read this blog.
If you need to replace fire sprinklers and you aren’t sure what you need, read this comprehensive guide.