Select Page

Where’s the Fire

Where’s the Fire
Okanagan Life Jan/Feb 2011

Phil Ackland

Phil Ackland’s summer job before his last year of high school paid a whopping $2 an hour—a small fortune in 1966. There was a reason cleaning exhaust systems in restaurant kitchens paid so well. “It was filthy, disgusting work,” he says. “I quite enjoyed it.”

A few years later he decided to branch out on his own. Not wanting to compete with his former employer, Phil left Seattle for Vancouver. His business grew quickly, and he began selling franchises. But by the late 1980s what he’d seen along the way had set him on a different path.

Most commercial kitchens produce huge volumes of grease-laden air. The hoods over cooking appliances are designed to collect this hot, greasy air and suck it into the duct work, which may run great distances through the interior of the building. Most of the grease is captured in special filters that fit tightly between the hood and the rest of the exhaust system. The remainder heads for the outdoors, but some condenses within the ducts along the way.

Controlled fire is a natural presence while cooking, but with gas, hot grease and open flame, there’s always the potential for something to go wrong. That’s when the kitchen hood’s built in safety features activate. Typically, when excess heat releases a fusible link the gas shuts off; the fan stops, preventing flames from being sucked further into the building; dampers close off the duct work, which is airtight so even if flames did get in there’s no oxygen supply; and spray nozzles in the hood release chemicals to douse the fire. Although the kitchen is left in a mess, disaster has been averted.

But some kitchens are literally playing with fire. When it comes to contraventions of fire codes and common sense, Phil has seen it all: duct work that’s been modified, allowing grease to pool (or escape into building cavities) and oxygen to enter; flammable construction materials a mere hand’s breadth from high-heat appliances; grease-choked filters pushed aside to allow air—and flames—better access into the duct work; “just cleaned” exhaust systems with clogged nozzles and grease-blocked safety doors; fusible links disabled through intention or neglect.

Phil figured he could help by giving fire department inspectors a more thorough understanding of how these systems were designed to work, so he started offering short information sessions. Before long he was invited to a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) meeting, then asked to sit on the committee for NFPA 96, the standard for commercial kitchens.

In 1989 he headed to his first session in Washington, DC, with more than 40 proposed changes to the standard. (“I was totally naïve,” he recalls; his list made up nearly half the recommendations from all of North America.) Several of his ideas were adopted. After that meeting another member told him, “You’ve arrived with common sense.”

He also tackled cleaning up his own industry. “There are a lot of fly-by-nights, even to this day,” he says; anyone can set up a business.

In the early 1990s, Phil and his wife Therese cracked the phone directories at the public library, compiled a list of exhaust cleaning companies, invited them to join an association and developed criteria for certification. “The purpose of certification was to try to provide the restaurant owner, the fire community and the exhaust cleaner with a base level—a standard of care.”

Phil sold his business in 1993. “By ’96, I was bored,” he says. “Then a friend said, ‘Why don’t you write a book about cleaning?’” Specialized manuals for inspectors, then fire investigators followed.

Phil’s two-day inspectors’ seminars had him flying all over the continent, which is exhausting, so he prefers his other line of work—investigating kitchen fires. Just before he sold his business, an insurance company called looking for a consultant.

“I got some education as far as fire investigation principles are concerned,” he says. “It is the investigation that is the most fun. Playing Sherlock Holmes, figuring out what happened and why, and who’s to blame.”

His work with NFPA 96 goes on. Trends and technology in the industry change, but Phil is still making sure those responsible for safety in commercial kitchens don’t lose sight of common sense. —Dawn Renaud

Photo by Dawn Renaud

Related Post

About The Author


Okanagan Life captures the essence of life in the Okanagan Valley with informative and entertaining features on issues that matter to people who live or vacation in this great region, plus stories on Okanagan destinations, personalities, wine, food, history, outdoor recreation and more. We're now in our 30th year of publishing. Subscribe

30,000 giveaway for small business okanagan

Current Issue

yearly-subscribeDigital Edition - Yearly Subscription

Each month, we're giving away 30 free annual subscriptions to celebrate our 30th year in publishing! With a digital subscription, you can enjoy Okanagan Life on your tablet.

Upcoming Events

3:00 pm Happy Hour at Quails Gate Winery... @ Old Vines Restaurant at Quails' Gate
Happy Hour at Quails Gate Winery... @ Old Vines Restaurant at Quails' Gate
Jan 22 @ 3:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Happy Hour at Quails Gate Winery with live music by Lindsay May @ Old Vines Restaurant at Quails' Gate | West Kelowna | BC | Canada
Happy Hour at Quail’s Gate Winery! Listen to Lindsay May perform her award winning originals and a fun mix of covers while sipping Foch and enjoying the beautiful view in this upscale restaurant in[...]
6:00 pm Communal Table Dinner Series @ Quails' Gate
Communal Table Dinner Series @ Quails' Gate
Jan 24 @ 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Communal Table Dinner Series @ Quails' Gate | West Kelowna | BC | Canada
Join us on Wednesday’s for our long table dinners, each time exploring a different theme or region in the world. Enjoy 3 family-style courses for $55 per person (plus tax & gratuity). January 10: France[...]
6:00 pm Wine Education Seminar: Through ... @ Quails' Gate
Wine Education Seminar: Through ... @ Quails' Gate
Jan 25 @ 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm
Wine Education Seminar: Through the Ages - Vertical Tasting @ Quails' Gate | West Kelowna | BC | Canada
At Quails’ Gate – we love wine! We love drinking it – making it and learning about it so we’re launching a new set of fun and interactive wine education sessions to share some of[...]
11:30 am Luncheon featuring Mayor Basran ... @ Coast Capri Hotel
Luncheon featuring Mayor Basran ... @ Coast Capri Hotel
Jan 26 @ 11:30 am – 1:30 pm
Luncheon featuring Mayor Basran - State of the City @ Coast Capri Hotel | Kelowna | BC | Canada
Mayor Colin Basran is the Chamber of Commerce’s guest speaker on January 26th providing his annual State-of-the-City address to a sold out crowd, about the past year’s successes, challenges and look ahead to where Council[...]


Error: Please enter a valid email address

Error: Invalid email

Error: Please enter your first name

Error: Please enter your last name

Error: Please enter a username

Error: Please enter a password

Error: Please confirm your password

Error: Password and password confirmation do not match