Food Trucks: Culinary Oasis or Public Threat

A food truck burns outside the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) building on the 400 block of E St. SW Tuesday, July 3. DC Fire officials said it was likely caused by a faulty propane regulator. Photo: SWBID

A cluster of blackened leaves still marks the tree outside NASA headquarters where a food truck burned beneath it a few minutes after noon on July 3. According to DC Deputy Fire Chief Tony Falwell, the cause was a faulty propane regulator, which caused a burst of fuel to ignite sending flames more than ten feet into the air.

The occupant of the truck escaped with only minor injuries. He was lucky. Others have not fared so well in District food truck fires. In November 2016, a food truck caught fire near George Washington University, seriously injuring three employees, one critically. Investigators said that fire was caused when the operator refueled a hot gas generator causing the fuel to ignite as the truck served customers.

Every day food trucks park end-to-end outside many of the District’s federal buildings, including a row of trucks at Maryland Avenue and Sixth Street SW where as many as 3,000 people pass through every hour, according to data collected by Kurb Technologies for the Southwest Business Improvement District (SWBID).

Given these numbers, it is worth knowing something about the steps The District government takes to ensure the safety of these commercial kitchens on wheels.

How Does DC Inspect Food Trucks?
Four agencies regulate food trucks, or Mobile Retail Vehicles (MRVs), in the District. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) handles vending on public space. The Department of Health (DOH) ensures safe food handling, while DC Fire and Emergency Services (DC FEMS) issues permits for propane gas and open flame use, as well as conducts fire safety inspections.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) provides broad oversight of the industry. They are in charge of licensing food trucks, as well as setting standards for the design, maintenance and operation of food truck equipment.

Many DC Code requirements, including for fresh and waste water tanks and a three-compartment sink as well as a generator-powered refrigerator and freezer, relate to food safety. Fewer recommendations focus on ensuring safe operation of portable heat, fuel and power sources.

Although 500 food truck permits are currently issued by DCRA to mobile retail vehicles in the District, there are only four officers to enforce them. And while generator-powered refrigerators and freezers are a requirement for vending vehicles under DC Code, none of the regulations set standards for the use and handling of gasoline-powered generators, nor do they require training for the handling of propane tanks.

Members of the DMV Food Truck Association (FTA), which represents more than 100 food trucks in eight jurisdictions, say that there is no cause for alarm.

“I would say that there’s the same risk as there is at any brick-and-mortar restaurant,” said DMV FTA Political Director and food truck operator Che Ruddell-Tabisola. Together with his husband Tad, he has been operating the BBQ Bus for seven years, parlaying the business into a catering service and, last year, a brick-and-mortar storefront, the BBQ Bus Smokehouse in Brightwood.

Ruddell-Tabisola said that food trucks are regulated and periodically inspected by the same agencies that govern restaurants, as well as the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). “Every food truck is a fully operational, inspected and licensed commercial kitchen,” he said, noting that characteristics of each truck vary according to the menu but are substantially the same as those found in a storefront restaurant.

A National Concern
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends that workers on food trucks receive training on such topics as how to extinguish fires and check for fuel line leaks. They also recommend that refueling of generators takes place only during non-operating hours when the surfaces are cool to the touch.

In the District, FEMS inspects food trucks prior to licensing, checking signage, wiring, fuel lines and looking at fuel and fire suppression systems, and issuing permits for the use of propane gas.

But Falwell acknowledged that operators are not required to take any training in operating or handling of fuel and fuel systems, and there are no fire code regulations in terms of the placement of generators or the distance between trucks and buildings.

Falwell said propane typically used on food trucks is similar to that used in at-home barbeques. “But we do want the food truck operators to know what to do in case of emergency, so we’ve got to put something in place to make sure we’re covering that training piece.”

Falwell said he has been examining the NFPA regulations and is hoping to incorporate them into regulations moving forward, either by changing regulations or appending them.

“Inspection of the food truck is one thing, but when the food truck is operating in the public [it] is another thing,” Falwell said. “You can be clean as a whistle when you leave [FEMS], but two weeks later when you’re out in the community selling, that’s where the issues are.”

The NFPA recommends food trucks be parked at least ten feet from buildings, structures and other vehicles. In the July 3 fire, a pizza truck parked directly behind the burning vehicle was also damaged.

While Falwell will be pushing for increased spacing between parked food trucks, he said ten feet is probably not feasible in the District. “Somebody will just park right between the trucks,” he said, “and your whole purpose has just been defeated.”

DCRA has convened a Food Truck Advisory Committee with representatives from the DMV FTA, FEMS, DCRA, DOH, MPD and the neighborhood Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).

Ruddell-Tabisola said the group is a good forum for communication between all the parties. “We’re partners in this,” he said. “I do think everyone in the group is interested in improving the current regulations.” The group also discussed the fire, and what should be done about it.

“Many of us have struggled with the cat and mouse issues of food truck regulation enforcement,” said SWBID Executive Director Steve Moore. “But since the explosion here earlier this month, we now believe that many of these trucks are unsafe.”

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D) has introduced legislation that closes the loopholes that many of the food trucks exploit.

”There are a small number of food trucks who regularly flaunt the law with little consequence,” he said. “Right now, it’s the cheapest rent in town and gives unfair advantage over every business that plays by the rules. It also takes away from the quality of our neighborhoods for the residents. In the meantime, DCRA needs to step up enforcement on bad actors who are breaking the law. Enforcement goes a long way toward deterrence and ensuring everyone is playing by the same rules and meeting health and safety standards.”

At Canal Park in Capitol Riverfront, children play 20 feet from a row of food trucks as Department of Transportation employees line up for lunch. Photo: M. Ashabranner

Safe by Design
In addition to holding a position on the Board of the DMV FTA, Jason Tipton is also one of the owners of the East Coast Mobile Business Launchpad, which for the past ten years has custom-built about 150 food trucks for use in the District for “everyone from mom and pop line cooks to the US Navy.” Tipton also is a partner in The Dirty South Deli, which operates four food trucks.

Any operator can construct and operate their own vehicle, provided the vehicle passes inspections by DCRA, DOH and FEMS.

Along with a few other builders, Tipton has recently incorporated the National Food Truck Manufacturers’ Association to bimprove food truck design standards. He believes licensed contractors should be responsible for elements of food truck construction that require professional trades people, like electrical and plumbing, the latter including fittings for fuel systems.

“Some food trucks have 20,000 watts of power and 60 lbs of propane,” he said. “if you’re a cook and you’re just trying to make French fries and gyros, do you really have any business connecting propane and running a 120-volt power box?”

The current regulatory system is not fool-proof, Tipton said, specifically noting regulations around plumbing. “Just last week I sent out two interns to look for specific violations of the regulations, and in about five hours they found forty violations,” he said, noting that many of the vehicles had made it through the DOH permitting process.

For Tipton, it isn’t that more regulations need to be written. He says there needs to be more mechanisms to ensure that those already on the books are consistently enforced in a useful way.

“In terms of the regulatory regime, the tools are all there for the regulators and the enforcers,” Tipton said. “They just need to take a hard look at it and start enforcing the rules that have been passed and adopted by the City Council, and the Council needs to provide them with the funding that they are requesting to do that.”

Deputy Chief Falwell disagrees with Tipton. He would like to see some modifications or elaborations on existing regulations. “You have to revisit what you have in place every now and again to make sure that you are meeting the needs of the changing environment,” he said. “The food truck industry in the District has grown and continues to grow.” Many of those involved in the industry believe the regulations need to grow with it.