On July 12, 2013, a crew from East Coast Cleaning scrubbed Anson Restaurant's kitchen exhaust system clean. State law requires restaurants to thoroughly clean their hoods at least once a quarter, so East Coast's owner, Randy Peagler, penciled in a return visit for October. But three months later, Anson still hadn't scheduled a follow-up.
"You got these companies doing cooking day to night, and they postpone it," said Peagler, whose company handles the bulk of Charleston restaurant hood cleanings. "Seventeen out of 20 times, I just say we're going to be there, but you always have two or three people say, 'It's the holidays.' I had one guy who said, 'I don't know if I have the money.' I said, 'I hope you have money when there's a fire.' "
The grill fire that flared in Anson's kitchen on Christmas Eve "went up the wall, and got up the roof," said owner Phil Pettus. The restaurant now is closed for partial demolition, and Pettus recently backed off an earlier forecast of an April reopening.
Although Pettus' insurance company is continuing to investigate what caused the fire, its path strongly suggests that the oven hood that was supposed to help contain the fire instead could have accelerated it. "When you have a dirty duct, that can act like a fuel," said Jonathan Hart, a fire protection engineer with the National Fire Protection Association.
Pettus isn't certain when his hoods were last cleaned, but said he handed over related documentation to his insurance company.
Peagler and other hood experts who have seen the greasy innards of exhaust systems in Charleston restaurants, from folksy to fancy, say the city is primed for an outbreak of dangerous blazes if it doesn't start enforcing the state's hood cleaning code.
"Companies around here know the fire department will not check, and that's what causes problems," said Robert Richmond, owner of Charleston Hood Cleaners. On his rounds, Richmond has snapped pictures of basketball-size openings narrowed to holes the size of softballs by carbonized grease, and a rooftop puddle of tarry build-up so thick that birds were fatally trapped in it.
"It's going to be bad," he said, "Somebody is going to lose their life over this."
The Charleston Fire Department concentrates its inspection efforts on new construction and permitted work; according to Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh, his 11-member division doesn't have the manpower it would need to perform routine inspections of restaurant hoods. He stressed that the office is only 3½ years old, and still "evolving."
Fire departments aren't required to ensure that restaurants are complying with code. The specifics of hood inspections, including whether or not they occur, are left up to local jurisdictions. State Fire Marshal Shane Ray described the Charleston Fire Department's laissez-faire approach as "atypical but legal."
But with more and more diners flocking to eat in a city considered one of the world's top culinary destinations, fire safety experts say proactive measures such as certifying hood cleaners, requiring documentation of cleanings, and conducting spot inspections are critical. According to Ray, the lesson of last fall's fire in Georgetown, in which seven buildings along the waterfront were gutted, is that quick response alone can't avert disaster.
"The restaurants in Charleston are located in old structures, and historic ones at that," said Les Williamson, division chief fire marshal for the North Myrtle Beach Fire Department, which eight years ago fashioned its hood cleaning code to keep the city's fry shacks and steakhouses from sparking infernos. "If you don't get control, it's Katy bar the door."
Since strengthening its hood cleaning oversight, North Myrtle Beach hasn't had a single grease fire in a duct, Williamson said. By contrast, according to data provided by the Charleston Fire Department, nearly half of the 31 fires reported in Charleston restaurants and bars since 2009 may have been stoked by unclean hoods. "That is a high number of fires," Williamson said when he heard that statistic. "That would seem to be a problem."
It's often hard to determine whether an improperly maintained hood contributed to a fire, frustrating South Carolina's attempts to measure the severity of the problem statewide. Ray's office is studying 1,000 restaurant fires in hopes of learning how to prevent them. "Seventy percent are classified as undetermined," he said. "We're trying to figure out, is it a failure to clean equipment?"
Nationally, failure to clean is cited as an igniting factor in one out of every five restaurant fires. The average yearly number of bar and restaurant fires between 2006 and 2010 was 7,640, with the incidents causing an annual average of two deaths, 115 injuries and $246 million in damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
The fatality figure is relatively low because restaurant diners and employees usually are awake and alert when a fire starts, Hart said.
"The threat isn't necessarily to patrons," he said. "But grease accumulation can be a dangerous situation, especially for firefighters."
Last spring, the Houston Fire Department suffered its worst loss of life ever when a fire at a vegetarian Indian restaurant, which previously had been cited for dirty grease traps, brought down the roof and wall of an adjoining hotel. Four firefighters were killed and 13 were injured in the blaze. The restaurant has since reopened in another location, while members of the hood cleaning industry wait to learn whether Houston will stiffen its enforcement in response to the tragedy.
Firefighter deaths frequently are the catalyst for changes in fire-safety codes. Although the fatal 2007 fire at Tai Ho Mandarin and Cantonese Cuisine in West Roxbury, Mass., is remembered largely because autopsy reports showed one of the two firefighters who lost his life was drunk, while the other had cocaine in his blood, the tragedy inspired the Boston Fire Department to draft a new set of hood cleaning regulations, considered the nation's best.
"We pretty much discovered there was really no regulation as to who cleans ductwork and makes sure it's done," Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said. "What we did was take something that wasn't regulated and regulate it. It applies to high-end restaurants as well as mom-and-pops."
Boston already has strict fire codes, so the department didn't encounter much resistance when in 2008 it introduced another fire-safety rule. Much of the language was based on existing work by the National Fire Protection Association and the International Kitchen Exhaust Cleaning Association.
"The NFPA ... pretty much spells out how a hood should be cleaned," MacDonald said. "Then we worked with the trade organization to come up with a certification process."
Under the code, hood cleaners must pass a test to obtain certification, pay a $25 annual fee and affix stickers to hoods showing the date of their work; while the mandated frequency varies by restaurant, even the least active restaurants are required to clean their hoods twice a year. When unrelated business brings officers into restaurant kitchens, "they'll glance at the sticker," MacDonald said. "When you lose two firefighters, it heightens awareness of everyone." If the sticker shows the hood is overdue for a cleaning, the officers will cite the restaurant for "failure to clean."
In South Carolina, health departments get involved with hoods only in the most appalling situations. "Our focus is to ensure that contact surfaces are not directly contributing to contamination of food, not whether flues or ductwork are free of grease buildup," Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesman Jim Beasley said. "Of course, we would concern ourselves if grease were to be dripping from the hoods onto preparation surfaces or food."
MacDonald said Boston's code hasn't entirely eliminated restaurant fires, but he can't recall a significant restaurant fire since its introduction. "We don't have them often, that's for sure," he said.
South Carolina last year adopted the 2012 edition of the International Fire Code, which mandates the cleaning of "hoods, grease-removal devices, fans, ducts and other appurtenances." Unlike previous versions of the code, which didn't specify a cleaning interval, it stipulates that cleaning must occur every three months.
"The (restaurant owners) were advised they must get this done, and (hood cleaners) know it," Charleston Fire Department Deputy Fire Marshal Ryan Kunitzer said. "So if restaurants aren't busting down their doors, they'll put a bug in their ear, and that puts money in their pockets too."
Beyond the schedule, the code doesn't detail much of the cleaning process. It requires general record-keeping, but as James Island Fire Department Battalion Chief Shawn Engelman said, "There are questions as to whether the service reported has actually been done. It's a bit of an honor system."
Engelman, whose department strives to inspect every restaurant's kitchen exhaust system once a year ("twice, if we can"), suspects that restaurant owners are sometimes the victims of dishonest cleaners. "They're going on the assumption, like a mechanic on your car, that they're honest and trustworthy," he said.
While Maverick Southern Kitchens chef Frank Lee said "understanding how the exhaust system operates is part of knowing how to run a kitchen," hood cleaners usually can get away with doing a poor job because very little of the system is visible.
"When these restaurant owners don't get up and check, they clean what the chef can see," said Richmond, of Charleston Hood Cleaners.
Yet Richmond is hesitant to hold restaurant owners blameless. "I really think they know it's not clean, because of the price," he said, referring to the local going rate of $200. Richmond charges as much as $3,000 to bring a neglected system up to code - or would, if he had more customers.
Since moving here from Alabama, where his stepfather and mother run a hood-cleaning business that services 5,000 restaurants from Florida to Texas, he has picked up only 40 accounts, and those mostly are restaurants that have had brushes with fire in the past.
"When you tell them the price, it scares them," Richmond said. "They think you're lying and trying to steal money from them."
Peagler stands by his work, but said in certain cases, he is hamstrung by restaurants failing to install necessary access panels and skipping cleanings. "You've got restaurants that do not abide by the rules," he said. "Way it is nowadays, you have to make them sign something saying they're aware of it."
East Coast is a professional outfit. What worries MacDonald of the Boston Fire Department are the cleaners without any qualifications. "Mom-and-pops struggling to make a profit, they might tell a nephew, 'Hey, go clean the kitchen.'" That assignment significantly underestimates the complexities of proper hood cleaning, alluded to by the index to the ANSI Standard for Cleaning of Commercial Kitchen Exhaust Systems. Entries include "chemical handling," "head protection," "ladders" and "wash water containment."
"I have $10,000 worth of equipment," Richmond said. "I've seen people with a garden hose, a five-gallon bucket and a rag. They say, 'We're going to do it for $150.' And the restaurants say, 'That's $50 cheaper. Absolutely.'"
The International Kitchen Exhaust Cleaning Association has 220 members. Only one of them lists a South Carolina address. "Wow, isn't that sad?" said President-elect Kathy Slomer. The lone South Carolina member is located in the Myrtle Beach area, which is generally recognized as having the state's toughest hood cleaning code.
"Of course, that's not the most popular thing with restaurants, but we were having problems with restaurants burning," said Williamson, of the North Myrtle Beach Fire Department.
After a Ryan's Steakhouse and a Greg Norman Grill nearly burned to the ground, the city created a cleaning schedule for restaurants. "We have some restaurants that clean every week because they're so busy, and they fry so much, they produce so much grease," Williamson said.
Every restaurant is required to submit documentation from a certified cleaner, according to the preset schedule. If a restaurant misses a cleaning, it's subject to a $205 fine.
Although the program primarily is administered from an office, Williamson said sending notices to restaurants, collecting the paperwork and monitoring it for deficiencies is a full-time job for an administrative assistant. Yet Williamson has made peace with the price.
"We've had a couple of fires where grease on the griddle ignited because they'd turned it up too high, but the fire protection system functioned correctly," Williamson said. "You've got to hope what you're doing is making a difference."
Still, Slomer doubts that many municipalities will follow North Myrtle Beach's lead. When her organization holds conferences, she invites local fire officials to join their meetings as an educational opportunity. Turnout was strong in San Francisco and Milwaukee, but in Naples, Fla., "two people walked in and left." Firefighters flock to sessions about pyrotechnics, but Ray can't recall the last time the State Fire Marshal's office devoted a program to hood cleaning.
"It's something I just wish I could shake someone about," Slomer said. "It's taken a loss of life before any jurisdiction takes hold of what's going on in their area."