Is your business prepared for a fire?

A simple checklist could save your business from being a total loss

Few things can devastate a business like a fire, as this photo of Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant, after its December 2004 fire, shows. Fortunately, say local fire department officials, this type of disaster is often very preventable.

   When the early morning phone call came in late December 2004, Giuseppe Mauro was recovering from the previous night’s rush and preparing for the coming day’s 150-person catering event. Assuming the alarm company’s automated call was a false alarm, he headed to his business, Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant, and found fire trucks swarming the block.
   “It was devastating because everything was melted. It was very upsetting,” Mauro said. “I knew right away it would be shut down.”
   Needless to say, the catering event was cancelled, the restaurant shut down and Mauro looked on as $200,000 disappeared from his pocket overnight, along with some irreplaceable inventory.
   “We walked upstairs and saw all these fine wine bottles with the corks popped off and melted labels,” Bellingham firefighter/paramedic Brian Flannelly said. “If you know anything about wine or are into fine wines, you know how sad that is.”
   The fire at Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant, located on Commercial Street at the time, along with most other commercial fires in Bellingham, could have been prevented, or its effects mitigated, with a few simple implementations, Flannelly said.
   For instance, although the fire department never identified the cause of the fire,
   Mauro had not installed smoke detectors at the restaurant.
   “If there had been a smoke detector, the damage could have been much less,” Mauro said. A smoke detector would have caught the fire at its onset, and allowed firefighters to quench it sooner, he said.
   Flannelly, who has worked as a firefighter/paramedic for 18 years, said installing smoke detectors and sprinkler systems, which are required by fire code in new building construction, are the best ways to deal with fire damage in case one breaks out. However, business owners can take several simple precautions to avoid fire in the first place.
   To illustrate, out of the 11 commercial fires in Bellingham from 2004 to 2005, electrical problems caused seven of them, items left against baseboard heaters caused two, natural gas sparked one and an undetermined source caused the fire at Guiseppe’s Italian Restaurant, Flannelly said.
   Overworked or improperly used electrical systems are the main fire hazard, Flannelly said. Business owners should not use extension cords, but if they do, they should make sure the cords are not stretched far from their power source. And while it’s hard to avoid — even Flannelly admits to this practice — outlets should never exceed their power capacity, usually done by adding an extra power strip. If they must, however, they should use power strips with built-in overcurrent protection, Flannelly said. This way, if the power strip’s capacity is reached, it will simply shut down instead of overload.
   Business owners should also look for and eliminate basic housekeeping hazards, such as garbage or flammable items near heat sources; oily or greasy wash rags that can spontaneously combust; and accumulated dust, lint or grease on machinery or heating equipment.
   Boxes, paper records, clothing, newspapers, old pallets and half-used cans of oil-based paints are all common fire hazards usually found in storage-type spaces, said Flannelly. While fire code dictates combustible materials must remain three feet from heat sources, most business owners can identify a significant amount of stored items they can just throw away, Flannelly said.
   Flannelly recalled a particularly destructive fire where an apartment-renter lined carpet over baseboard heaters, not realizing that despite turning them off, they would switch on as the temperature dipped.
   “That was one big mess,” Flannelly said.
   Flannelly also witnessed a fire recorded on a restaurant’s night camera when a pile of greasy rags spontaneously combusted.
   “Yes,” Flannelly said, “spontaneous combustion really does happen.”
   Making evacuation plans, posting them and practicing fire drills is another way business owners can lower the potential impact a fire could have on their employees’ safety, Flannelly said. This is especially important for larger businesses with multiple floors or many employees.
   Flannelly also recommends installing a lock box on the business’s front door. The fire department carries a master key in every fire engine that unlocks this standard box, which holds the business’s front door key, Flannelly said. This allows firefighters faster access to a building, which could make a significant difference in the amount of damage done to the business.
   If a fire occurs while employees or business owners are present, they should get out of the building as quickly as possible, Flannelly said.
   “Don’t try to fight the fire, don’t try to save any files. Just get out and call 911,” he said. “Fire rolls so fast you wouldn’t believe it.”
   Some fires can overcome a conference-room-sized area in about three minutes, he said, and smoke can overcome a person in one or two minutes. Most fire fatalities occur when someone attempts to fight a fire or stay behind to rescue valuables.
   Stay low to the ground if the building is smoky, and of course, stop-drop-and-roll if your body or clothing catches fire, Flannelly said.
   Once out of the building, account for all employees and stay at the scene, making sure everyone is out of the building. If an employee is missing, call 911 to report their absence so the firefighters know right away they may need to rescue someone.
   After the firefighters put out the fire, they will investigate its cause, do some basic cleanup and cover any holes caused by the fire.

The day after
   The next step is to contact the business’s insurance agency as well as the owner of the property.
   Mauro initially had what he called a “big fight” with his insurance agency and hired a lawyer to recover the money he felt they owed him. Business owners should buy a higher level of coverage than they might initially feel they need, Mauro said, and should familiarize themselves with the policy’s nuances.
   If a fire occurs, Mauro recommended hiring a lawyer who specializes in fire insurance to help file and process the claim.
   Even though the fire department inspects all commercial property annually, Flannelly said business owners are welcome to call the fire department for voluntary inspections or help with preventative measures.
   “We only have one concern, and that’s for the safety of you (the business owner), the employees and the general public,” he said. “You’re paying our salaries and we want to work for you.”
   After his first fire experience, Mauro’s new Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant on Cornwall Avenue, which opened last September, is loaded with sprinkler systems and smoke detectors — as well as customers and fragrant pasta dishes.
   On a recent weekday afternoon, Mauro was busy taking catering orders for birthday parties, mingling with customers and answering phone reservation requests. Instead of burnt wine bottles and blackened tablecloths, his business concerns have finally reverted back to the normal stresses of restaurant management instead of fire recovery.
   For more information on fire preparedness, call Brian Flannelly at (360) 820-2900.


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