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The city of Madison doesn’t mandate that food trucks and carts have exhaust hoods and fire suppression systems, despite a food cart fabricator warning that city officials should take action.

In a May 2018 story in the Wisconsin State Journal, Josh Romaker, who started his welding and metal fabrication shop in Fitchburg in late 2013, and now runs Caged Crow from northern Wisconsin, said Madison really needs to pay attention to cart safety.

“The Madison food cart scene is kind of light compared to the rest of the country, as far as regulations for commercial kitchens,” he said. “Madison doesn’t have strict rules, let’s put it that way.”

Romaker said he’d like to see Madison get more in line with other cities that require food trucks and carts with propane or gas cooking lines to have exhaust hoods and fire suppression systems.

“A lot of the Madison food cart calls we get, they want them very simple and affordable, but at the same time there’s a lot of food carts in Madison running around with fryers and griddles and stoves and there’s no exhaust hoods, no fire suppression,” Romaker said.

Caged Crow pays a lot for insurance and Romaker said he will only build Madison carts if the customer is willing to take all the safety precautions to build them right.

City street vending coordinator Meghan Blake-Horst said last year that Madison doesn’t require exhaust hoods and fire suppression systems, but a conversation had begun.

“You might have a fire. You work with grease, you work with flame, you work with propane,” she said. “You are at a high risk for that kind of catastrophic situation.”

If a prospective vendor asks about hoods and suppression systems, she recommends “doing it right the first time,” Blake-Horst said. “But right now we don’t have any regulations on the books.”

Blake-Horst said Madison food carts are “required to have appropriate fire extinguishers in their carts at all times.” She said she’s not sure when that first became law. She started her position in December 2016 and it was required then.

Madison food carts aren’t required to have exhaust hoods because of the type of cooking they do, Blake-Horst said.

An exhaust hood houses a fan, and hangs above the stove or cooktop. It helps clear airborne grease, combustion products, smoke, steam, heat and odors.

A hood and fire suppression system is less necessary for some carts, like ones that only make smoothies, Blake-Horst said.

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Fire suppression is a separate system, often installed within the hood, she said. A fire suppression unit is an emergency extinguishing system in which nozzles are placed under the commercial hood over each piece of cooking equipment with an open flame, Blake-Horst said, noting that steam tables are exempt.

If the temperature exceeds a set limit — normally 400 to 500 degrees — a dry liquid powered chemical will be dispersed and the gas will automatically shut off, she said.

“A fire extinguisher serves the same purpose just engaged by a person not a sensor,” she said.

Food truck fires and even explosions happen, Romaker said, noting that there are plenty of videos online.

“A fire extinguisher doesn’t come close to good enough,” he said. “If any gas cooking equipment is on board, a exhaust hood and Fire Suppression needs to be a requirement, period.”

Some areas excluded

In the past, full-size food trucks and trailers were able to do business only at festivals and events that had street use or parks permits. As of Saturday, they’re allowed in Madison outside the high-density areas where food carts vend. So the trucks and trailers are not allowed on State Street Mall, Downtown, Southeast Campus and Camp Randall, Blake-Horst said.

Most, if not all, of the food trucks and trailers will have hoods and fire suppression because of the type of cooking they do, Blake-Horst said.

“There is a fine line between appropriate regulation and over-regulation,” she said. “We also are aware of the cost of this equipment, and that, if not necessary, could increase the barrier to entry into the market for those with lower incomes and historical challenges with starting their own businesses.”

Being proactive

The Madison Fire Department and street vending office are sending information to vendors on how to be proactive and avoid any catastrophic fire issues, Blake-Horst said.

With full-size food trucks coming into Madison, it’s a good time for staff to review the policies and codes to ensure the city is providing proper guidance and maintaining public safety, Blake-Horst said.

A multi-department staff team is also reviewing how food carts and the new, full-size food trucks are inspected, and examining the ordinances and codes to ensure they are up to date with today’s environment and standards, she said.

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