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Pennsylvania fire code gap like 'speed limit without police'

Fires and explosions have been the subject of a lot of headlines in recent days. Eyes in Pittsburgh have likely been focused on the deadly runaway oil train explosion and fire that leveled part of a Canadian town and killed at least 20 people. Then there's the commercial plane crash and fire on the West Coast that left two people dead and more than 180 injured.

With those events fresh in readers' minds, it might surprise some in Pittsburgh to learn that due to a gap in the language, the state law that is supposed to ensure the safety of commercial kitchens against causing fire-related injury or possibly death is, according to some, virtually useless. 

One industry representative says the law is like having a speed limit and no cops to enforce it. What it means is that if a restaurant happens to be in violation of the pertinent law, it probably won't be discovered until after a fire has already done its damage.

State officials say the crux of the issue is that, while the law requires commercial kitchens to have functioning fire suppression systems and to inspect them twice a year, the law doesn't say who should conduct those inspections. Officials sign off on the systems after installation, but the onus for all future checks falls to the restaurant owners. There's no check to be sure the inspections are being completed.

The lack of such oversight is believed to have contributed to a June 19 restaurant fire in the downtown area. Officials say grease in a fryer ignited and spread to the roof. The structure suffered $100,000 in damage. Fortunately, no one was injured. The owner is expected to face a fine for failing to have the suppression system inspected.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Fire Department says it is working on a plan that will eventually see firefighters trained to conduct the required annual inspections and give them authority to cite operations that fail the checks.

Source:, "Loophole undermines law requiring fire inspections for Pittsburgh restaurants," Tony LaRussa, July 2, 2013; BBC, "Canada train disaster: Blast missing 'probably dead'," July 11, 2013;, "Crash investigation turns to pilots’ use of autothrottle," The Associated Press, July 9, 2013

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