Can Philadelphia's Food Truck Tragedy Happen Here?: A Look at Chicago's Food Truck Rules

aftermath of philadelphia food truck explosion

July 1, 2014, was a wake-up call for everyone in the food truck business. On that day, news spread across the country about the terrible explosion in Philadelphia caused by a leaky propane tank on a licensed food truck. The fiery blast injured 13 including a mother and daughter working inside the truck.

In response, many food truck licensees have started to question their food truck laws and ordinances to see just how safe their workplace is. This is also important to the industry because if customers don't feel safe when they go to a food truck, they will just stop coming.

So, can Philadelphia's food truck tragedy happen in Chicago?

To answer that, we have to look at the food truck laws in Philadelphia. Believe it or not, the Philadelphia Fire Department is not required to inspect food trucks. The only mention of fire safety in Philadelphia's Mobile Food Vending Unit-Plan Submission Guide is a note directing food truck licensees to be sure that they are in compliance with fire safety laws. No inspection necessary. No training necessary. 

Unfortunately, a hands-off approach is not exactly uncommon when it comes to food truck fire safety. In Indiana, for example, the Indianapolis Fire Marshall Chief maintains that his department is barred by state law from inspecting anything on wheels. (see here).

What are the food truck fire safety requirements in Chicago?

It's a completely different story here. Some would say that Chicago's food truck licensing requirements are overly-burdensome. One thing is for sure: the fire safety requirements are extensive. Chicago's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (DBACP) spent a long time developing its Mobile Food Vendor program. It researched and studied programs in other cities and came up with a mix of regulations it deemed necessary for Chicago. It's a lot.

All Chicago Mobile Food Vendors with a gasoline or electric generator, propane, compressed natural gas or a fire suppression hood are required to obtain a Fire Safety Permit. What that means is, among other things, an applicant needs to (as needed):

  • file detailed drawings from a licensed company that designed the truck's fire suppression system 
  • pass an initial fire inspection (an extensive Fire Safety Inspection Checklist is the basis of this inspection)
  • have a person on board the truck at all time who is trained by the City of Chicago in handling and exchanging propane tanks
  • have all of its employees attend a Fire Safety Class
  • maintain a combustible gas detector for daily readings on the truck
  • comply with the general Mobile Food Vehicle Safety Specifications and Practices

In other words, Chicago's mobile food vendors must satisfy a mountain of rigorous requirements in order to get a license. Philadelphia's licensing process doesn't even come close.

Does that mean that a tragedy like the one in Philadelphia will never happen here in Chicago? Of course not. Accidents happen. But Chicago's tough ordinance will, hopefully, help Mobile Food Truck vendors and their customers stay safer.

by Daniel Rubinow, Principal Attorney

License Law Group


Daniel Rubinow