Walk through the streets of virtually every major urban North American city, and above the heads and out of the minds of the majority of the population, masses of steel, known to most as fire escapes, cling to worn and aged exterior walls (photo 1). Fire escapes have a long history of providing a safe means of egress for both building occupants and firefighters alike, yet scattered among the countless success stories of escape from fire through the use of fire escapes, we find accounts of serious injury and even fatalities as a result of firefighters using these structures during incidents.
Photo 1 Fire escapes with gooseneck ladders to the roof. (Photos by author.)
One of the earliest recorded building acts that required a second means of egress came on April 17, 1860, in Chapter 470, Section 25 of the New York City Act entitled “An Act to Provide Against Unsafe Building in the City of New York.” This Act states:
“In all dwelling-houses which are built for the residence of more than eight families, there shall be a fire-proof stairs, in a brick or stone, or fire-proof building, attached to the exterior walls, and all the rooms on every story, must communicate by doors, or if the fire-proof stairs are not built as above, then there must be fire-proof balconies on each story on the outside of the building connected by fire-proof stairs, and all rooms on every story, must communicate by doors. If the buildings are not built with either stairs or balconies as above specified, then they must be built fire-proof throughout."
After this act came into effect, the practice of using fire escapes fastened to the exterior of the building became the predominant method of providing a secondary means of egress and remained that way for many decades. Today, progressive building codes have made fire escapes virtually obsolete in modern buildings, and those that remain are often neglected and poorly maintained. This makes it important that we understand the limitations of these life safety devices and are aware of the effects that decades worth of exposure to the elements can have on the structural components.
There are three main types of fire escapes that are most commonly found: the exterior stairway, the party balcony, and the standard fire escape.
Exterior Stairway Fire Escape
The exterior stairway is the safest type of fire escape and the easiest to negotiate in a fire, as it most closely resembles an interior stairway. Typically, each tread is evenly spaced, a handrail is usually present, and the stairway is wide enough for two people to descend side by side. Since this type of fire escape is most commonly found on schools, theaters, and other buildings with a high occupancy load, the stairway continues all the way to the ground and doesn’t contain a sliding drop ladder or counterbalance stairway on the lowest balcony.
Party Balcony Fire Escape
The party balcony fire escape is the simplest design and differs from both the exterior stairway and the standard fire escape in that it doesn’t contain a ladder or stairway to the ground (photo 2). This design uses a balcony installed between two separate occupancies so that in a fire people can flee from their units onto the balcony and into the adjoining occupancy. One problem that can arise with this type of fire escape is if access to the adjoining unit has been restricted and those who take refuge on the balcony are left with no exit. In this situation, occupants may need to be rescued through the use of ground ladders for lower floors or aerial apparatus for taller buildings.
Photo 2. Party Balcony Fire Escape
Standard Fire Escape
The standard fire escape is the most common type found throughout North America (photo 3). This design uses metal balconies at each floor connected by a steep and narrow metal ladder. This type of fire escape is more difficult to negotiate when carrying tools and while wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) because of the steep angle and the limited space on the balconies. Another important aspect of the standard fire escape is the manner in which the escape terminates at both the roof and ground levels. At the roof level, we most commonly find a gooseneck ladder and on the ground level a drop ladder or a counterbalance stairway.
Photo 3. Standard Fire Escape
The gooseneck ladder is a vertical ladder that extends from the top-floor balcony of a standard fire escape to the roof. The rail of the ladder extends past the roofline and arcs back down to the roof decking (resembling a gooseneck) and provides a constant hand hold for the firefighters until they are securely on the roof. Because the ladder is completely vertical, take care when climbing while wearing SCBA, as the eccentric load behind you causes a significant pullback effect.
The drop ladder is a vertical ladder on the lowest balcony that can be lowered to the ground in a fire. The ladder is held in place by a hook that is disengaged by lifting the weight of the ladder off the hook; the ladder can then be lowered to the ground. This can be done by firefighters from the ground by using the hook of a pike pole to apply upward pressure on the bottom rung of the ladder until it lifts off the hook, and then it can be lowered to the ground. In his book The Collapse of Burning Buildings, Vincent Dunn recommends that firefighters stand beneath the balcony and clear of the ladder while lowering the drop ladder. These mechanisms can be heavily rusted and in very poor condition and could break free from the tracks during the operation.
Counterbalance stairways are another method used to bring building occupants from the first-floor balcony to the ground (photo 4). These stairways are balanced on a pivot in the horizontal position held in place by heavy cast-iron weights. These cast-iron weights are either attached to the end of the stairway or suspended from a steel cable (photo 5). To lower the stairway, the building occupant begins to move forward on the suspended stairway and, as the occupant’s weight begins to counterbalance the cast-iron weight, the stairwell begins to pivot and it lowers to the ground. Because of the many moving parts associated with counterbalance stairways and the substantial weight that is suspended above the ground, firefighters should use extreme caution when operating around or underneath these fire escapes. The use of ground ladders should be the first choice of firefighters for access to first-floor balconies, as opposed to relying on the structural integrity of a counterbalanced stairway.
Photo 4. Counterbalance Stairway
Photo 5. Suspended Counterbalance Weight
There are a number of hazards associated with fire department personnel using fire escapes during a fire, with the largest contributor being the sheer age of the buildings and the lack of maintenance of the components. Many of the fire escapes we may encounter have hung from the building and have been exposed to the elements for a hundred years. Rust, corrosion, missing bolts, loose anchor parts, materials stolen for scrap metal, and deteriorating exterior walls can all play a significant role in the stability of the fire escape. Firefighters who are permitted to use fire escapes as part of their department’s standard operating procedures or guidelines should always exercise caution while operating on these structures, be constantly on the lookout for any deficiencies, and invest the time to train and understand how to operate the common types of mechanisms that are found in your areas.
Thanks to one of my mentors, Chief Vincent Dunn, for the inspiration and encouragement to write this column. Chief Dunn has written on the topic of fire escapes numerous times, and if you would like to learn more, I highly recommend his books, The Collapse of Burning Buildings: A Guide to Fireground Safety 2nd Edition and Safety and Survival on the Fireground 2nd Edition.