Prank Calls Wreck Restaurants – Criminal Liability and Fire Code Requirements

By Constantine Mittendorf

Attention Prank Calls

Last week, a number of restaurants in California’s Central Valley received a phone call from someone claiming to be from either a local fire department or a fire alarm company.  The caller asked the restaurant to test the emergency fire suppression system, claiming that the system was in “test mode.”  The problem was, it was a prank call, and the fire suppression system was not in “test mode.”

A few restaurants who received the call recognized that it was a hoax and ignored it.  Others were more trusting.  Employees in several restaurants pulled the emergency fire suppression lever, which released water and dry chemical fire-fighting agent all over the kitchens including the grills and food preparation areas.  This effectively shut down these restaurants for days and caused thousands of dollars in losses.  It also meant a visit from the health inspector before the restaurants could be cleared to open again.

Over a dozen similar incidents have occurred nationwide over the last year.  Calls have come into restaurants in Oregon, California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Minnesota all following the same pattern.  The caller pretends to be a fire suppression specialist and tells the employees to either pull the fire suppression lever or break out windows due to a dangerous gas leak.  The caller or callers were able to convince staff to activate the fire suppression systems and in some cases, even break out restaurant windows.

Law enforcement is currently investigating the incidents.  The caller or callers could be subject to both civil and criminal liability, including possibly harassing phone calls and/or fraud. (Cal. Penal Code § 653m; Cal. Penal Code § 474)

This is also a reminder to use common sense and to make sure workers are educated about equipment.  In fact, the California law requires an approved fire safety and evacuation plan for restaurants, which includes the identification and assignment of personnel responsible for maintenance of systems and equipment installed to prevent or control fires.  Restaurants must maintain a detailed plan with specific provisions required by law, including training and regular maintenance.  For restaurants with more than ten employees, this plan must be in writing.  (See Cal. Fire Code § 404 et. seq.; Cal. Code of Regs. Tit. 8, § 3221 et. seq.)

In other words, employers should identify and communicate to all workers the point person in charge of fire safety equipment and procedures.  That way employees won’t accidentally destroy restaurant equipment as the result of a misunderstanding – or in this case, fraud.