Ventilation concerns shut down Blanchard


Officials from South Hadley Fire Department’s Fire District no. 2 responded to Blanchard Café on Sunday, after receiving a call from a Blanchard staff member who expressed concern about the high heat level in the kitchen.

Fire Department officials assessed the situation and issued a warrant for the café to be shut down until the problem could be fixed. Associate Director of Residential Life Nashalie Vazquez informed students of the café’s closing in a campus-wide email sent at 12:52 p.m.

According to South Hadley Fire Chief Scott Brady, the primary problem was with the hood system over the main grill area, which was preventing the effective ventilation of the grill’s steam. 

“If you have a lot of grease and a lot of vapors, there is a larger potential for fire,” Chief Brady explained. “If there is enough heat built up it can activate the fire suppression systems, which can really shut down a kitchen for an extended period of time.”

The buildup of greasy steam in the grill area was the first thing Taryn Tieu ’20 noticed when she entered Blanchard Café to get a sandwich Sunday morning.

“I saw that something was smoking,” Tieu said. “The whole grill area was filled with smoke.”

Fire officials decided that the ventilation system in Blanchard’s grill area did not comply with state fire codes, including with NFPA-96, which sets the standard for ventilation control and fire protection of commercial cooking operations.

Electricians from Mount Holyoke’s Facilities Management department responded to the kitchen quickly, and worked on the hoods above the grill, according to Electrical Supervisor Thomas Robert. The grill reopened around 3:00 p.m. 

High heat levels in Blanchard had been a concern even in the days leading up to Sunday’s shutdown. Julia Klukoff ’21, a work- study student for Dining Services, noticed that it was hotter than usual during her shift in Blanchard Café on Saturday afternoon.

“I just figured it was the steam from the dishwasher and the hot water, and me walking back and forth from the kitchen to the grill, but it really felt like an oven in there,” Klukoff said. “By the time I was finished working I was drenched in sweat and really overheated.”

Klukoff said one of her co-workers was forced to leave her shift early when a combination of heat and dehydration caused her to feel too nauseated to continue working. Klukoff herself experienced the same symptoms later in the day.

“Obviously being dehydrated was partly my fault because I wasn’t drinking anything,” Klukoff said, “But the kitchen definitely shouldn’t have been as hot as it was.”

On Monday, Mount Holyoke electricians continued looking into the problem, and discovered that the cause of the poor ventilation lay with the variable-frequency drive (VFD) located in Blanchard’s basement. The VFD was dirty, which caused it to overheat and shut down, preventing the ventilation hoods from working properly.

“I am crossing my fingers and hoping for the best,” Robert said. “We cleaned it up and got it working again. We are hoping that will rectify the problem.”