Author(s): Carl F Baldassarra, P.E., FSPPE. Published on September 4, 2014.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1975, a fire broke out on the upper floors of a five-story brownstone apartment building in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Firefighters were on the scene, including a ladder truck and crew involved in the rescue of a young woman and her toddler goddaughter from a top-floor fire escape.

As a firefighter was about to help the woman and child access the ladder, the fire escape collapsed. A newspaper photographer was shooting the drama, and captured the moment when the fire escape tore away, sending the woman and child plummeting to the sidewalk below as the firefighter clung to the ladder. The woman died at the scene; the child survived. Newspaper and wire services around the world ran the images—the photographer, Stanley Forman, would win a Pulitzer Prize for his work that day—and launched a discussion of the need for tougher fire safety codes, in some cases leading to municipalities adopting more stringent regulations that included provisions for exterior fire escapes.

At NFPA, the discussion had already been going on for decades. One hundred years ago, NFPA’s newly appointed Committee on Safety to Life was busy taking a hard look at fire and building safety. Formed in 1913 as part of NFPA’s response to the Triangle Waist Company fire, the devastating 1911 blaze in a New York City garment factory that killed nearly 150 people, the committee spent its early years analyzing notable fires involving loss of life: not just Triangle, but also the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago (more than 600 killed), the 1908 Lake View School fire in Collinwood, Ohio (175 killed), the 1913 Binghamton Clothing Factory fire in New York State (31 killed), and others. From the outset, the committee reserved some of its harshest criticism for fire escapes, which it tended to view as a problematic solution to the larger problem of getting people out of buildings quickly and safely in the event of fire.

 

More on Fire Escapes

Following Triangle, municipalities around the country had began to enact laws requiring means of emergency egress from buildings, and exterior stairways fashioned of wrought iron became the prevailing method for achieving that means—but not without creating new problems. In its report to NFPA’s executive committee in 1914, the Committee on Safety to Life noted a number of “common defects” present in “a very large percentage of the outside fire escapes in use to-day.” Those problems included inaccessibility, their tendency to be unshielded against fire, poor design (including supports, width, slope—many older fire escapes were essentially a series of vertical ladders—and other characteristics), absence of ladders or stairs from the second floor to the ground, poor overall condition, ice and snow coverage, and their use as outside storage areas by building tenants. Despite those shortcomings, the committee said, “The fact remains that the outside fire escape is the commonest special provision for escape, [and] that it is written into the Statute books of the states, will long remain with us.”

A century later, plenty of those old buildings—and their worrisome fire escapes—are indeed still with us. However, fire escapes are often out of sight, out of mind—building features that are taken for granted as being “adequate” secondary exits without much analysis, though it can be easy for fire protection professionals to discount the ability of fire escapes to provide any measurable egress benefit. In fact, because of the dangers presented by fire escapes themselves, they have not been recognized as an acceptable means of egress in new construction since the Building Exits Code—the forerunner to the

Life Safety Code—in 1927. The alternative is the enclosed rated stairwell, which was also recognized in the 1927 edition of the Building Exits Code as a fairly reliable and easily utilized means of egress and which most people have experience using every day.

But as preservation efforts around the country seek to maintain older buildings, and as these structures are considered for renovation as part of redevelopment efforts in their core neighborhoods, fire escapes are often involved as a part of those buildings’ means of egress. Because of our tendency to often overlook them, opportunities to enforce requirements for upgrading the protected openings and improving access to the fire escapes are sometimes lost. The fire risk associated with some of these buildings is not always evident: a serious fire on a lower floor would require many people to use the fire escapes, subjecting them to a physical test they may not have had in decades, if ever. Our older cities are filled with buildings featuring single central stairways, or even unenclosed stairways, which places an even higher level of importance upon fire escapes as the secondary means of egress.

While the actual use of fire escapes for emergency egress is not often tested, the risks remain. Following the Cook County Administration Building fire in downtown Chicago in 2003, a blaze that claimed six lives, a survey of hundreds of high-rise buildings in the city revealed myriad deficiencies related to existing fire escapes, from unprotected wall openings to difficult or nearly impossible access conditions—problems identical to those condemned by NFPA’s Committee on Safety to Life nearly a century before, and characteristics common to fire escapes in communities across the country. Every exterior fire escape comes with fundamental questions attached: Even as a last resort, can the fire escape be effectively used when needed, either by building occupants or first responders? Will it remain attached to the building if used? Will its component pieces function together? Can it serve the disabled occupants of a building?

Those questions in and of themselves do not constitute a problem. The difficulty for fire professionals is that too often we cannot provide answers—our modern predicament with the legacy technology of the fire escape.

How we got here: A brief history of fire escapes

The construction of taller buildings in the United States began in the mid-nineteenth century. Many of those buildings had only a single open wood stairway, located in the center of the building and connected to corridors serving apartments or office areas, often in a “dead-end” configuration. While convenient, these stairways were the one and only means of day-to-day access and egress, presenting a multiple risk of being both unusable in a fire event and offering a means of rapid vertical fire spread. A number of fatal fires followed.

In 1860, New York City required all residential buildings containing more than eight units to have a secondary means of escape. That same year, the New York City company Baker and McGill patented a design that incorporated nearly all the major components of what we acknowledge today as the traditional exterior iron balcony fire escape, which consisted of a series of adjustable or stationary stairs, steps, or ladders.

In response to a push for housing reform, New York State passed the first Tenement House Act in 1867, which mandated that all new and existing tenement houses be equipped with fire escapes. The law was regarded as not specific enough to be effective, however, since it only required tenements to have fire escapes or “some other” approved means of egress. Incremental improvements were included in the second Tenement House Act, passed in 1879, and in amendments adopted in 1887.

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1899, a fire broke out on the second floor of the Windsor Hotel in New York City. The fire spread quickly, trapping dozens of people on the upper floors of the seven-story building. There were a small number of fire escapes on the building, though some reports indicated that fire billowing from windows had made them too hot to use. Guest rooms were equipped with ropes intended to help people slide to safety; the difficulty of a rope descent was, by one account, described as “an act exacted only by a gymnast,” and even many of those who could execute the move were forced to let go when the rope burned their hands. As a result, dozens fell to their deaths or leapt from windows to escape the flames; the structure’s collapse killed dozens more. Nearly 90 people died in the event. The fire prompted an outpouring of protest over the use of ropes as a means of escape. New fire escape bills were proposed in New York State with the most detailed provisions for the construction and use of fire escapes.

 

Firefighters use a fire escape

Firefighters use a fire escape to battle a five-alarm blaze at an apartment building in New York City.  The neeed for first responders to access buildings in a variety of ways is just one of the reasons for ensuring that fire escapes are subjected to regular inspection and maintenance.

PHOTO: Associated Press

A watershed moment in building safety occurred on March 26, 1911, when a fire at the Triangle Waist Co., a garment factory in Lower Manhattan, claimed the lives of nearly 150 workers, most of them girls and young women. The appalling loss of life was attributed in part to inadequate and locked interior exits in the 11-story building, as well as to a fire escape at the rear of the building that collapsed, killing dozens of fleeing workers. The lack of an overarching authority in New York City for enforcement of the regulations and the vagueness of the exit law both received blame for the tragedy. Section 103 of the city’s building code included in its wording “good and sufficient” fire escapes, stairways, or other means of egress, and left the terms “good and sufficient” to be interpreted by the individual inspectors.

The impact of Triangle fire was felt far beyond Manhattan and New York State. NFPA initiated discussions on life safety in the aftermath of Triangle, including an unflinching assessment of fire escapes. Those conclusions, published in the association’s Quarterly in 1911, reinforced the public’s attitude about the diminished safety of the exterior fire escape:

It has long been recognized that the common outside form of iron ladder-like stairway anchored to the side of the building is a pitiful delusion. This device for a quarter of a century has contributed the principal element of tragedy to all fires where panic resulted. Passing successively the window openings of each floor, tongues of flames issuing from the window of any one floor cut off the descent of all on floors above it . . . Its platforms are usually pitifully small, and a rush to them from several floors at once jams and chokes them hopelessly. It is a makeshift creation of the cupidity of landlords, frequently rendered still more useless by the ignorance of tenants, who clutter it up with milk bottles, ice boxes and other obstructions.

As a result of Triangle and other major loss-of-life fires in the U.S., NFPA organized the Committee on Safety to Life in 1913 to make recommendations for the improvement of building exit safety. The reports of the committee were published in pamphlet form, including “Outside Stairs for Fire Exits” (1916). The committee did not recognize fire escapes as an approved means of egress in new construction and recommended them only to correct deficiencies in existing buildings.

The committee’s work contributed to the creation of the Building Exits Code—the forerunner of

NFPA 101, Life Safety Code—which was approved in 1927. The Building Exits Code included a new provision that specified outside stairs, rather than fire escapes, as a means of exterior egress. Outside stairs had more rigorous criteria than fire escapes for stairway width, treads, risers, construction materials, and the protection of the stairway from a building’s interior by rated openings. The code also included this:
201. The outside stairs specified by this code are far superior to the ordinary fire escapes which are commonly found on existing buildings. These utterly inadequate, flimsy, precipitous fire escapes, unshielded against fire in the structure to which they are attached, are positively a menace because they give a false sense of security. Such escapes are not recognized by this code. 

Even the superior outside stairs constructed in accordance with this code have serious limitations which may prevent their effective use in time of fire. Even where window protection is provided, conditions may be such that fire (or smoke from the fire) on lower floors may render the stairs impassable before the occupants of upper stories have had time to use them. Outside stairs may be blocked by snow, ice or sleet at the time when they are most needed.

Persons using outside stairs at considerable height are likely to be timid and to descend the stairs, if at all, at a rate much slower than that which obtains on stairs inside buildings . . . Occupants of buildings will not so readily use them in case of fire as they will (tend to) use the usual means of exit, the inside stairway. Because they are an emergency device not ordinarily used, their proper upkeep may be neglected.

Despite their flaws, exterior fire escapes have operated effectively for decades and have helped save countless lives during fire events and other emergencies. The 1946 fire at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago was at least a partial success for fire escapes. The 1,000-room hotel was built in 1909 and labeled as “the most comfortable, modern and safest hotel west of New York City.” A fire broke out near the lobby shortly after midnight and spread rapidly; remodeling work and an open stairwell allowed thick smoke to ascend the full 22-story height of the hotel, leaving the stairs impassable. Of the 61 people who died in the fire, the majority succumbed to smoke inhalation. Around 900 guests were able to leave the building, many via the fire escapes—news photographs of the incident famously depicted lines of guests filing calmly down the zig-zag fire escapes of the building. The fire resulted in the Chicago city council enacting new hotel building codes and firefighting procedures, including the installation of automatic alarm systems and fire safety instructions inside the hotel rooms.

One of the last architecturally important buildings to include fire escapes was the Commonwealth Building, now known as the Equitable Building, in Portland, Oregon. Designed by Pietro Belluschi, a noted modernist architect, it was one of the first metal and glass tall buildings (originally 12 stories, later 14) ever built. It was completed in 1948 to much acclaim, and in 1982 it received the 25-year award from the American Institute of Architects. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

The building was an early example of a sealed curtain wall system, with central air conditioning—a design that seems incongruous with exterior fire escapes. Not much had been built for nearly two decades before this, however, and the codes apparently had not been updated to address, or prohibit the use of, exterior fire escapes. Presumably, the developer wanted to maximize the amount of rentable area and insisted that the fire escapes be used in lieu of interior stairs. The result is believed to be a rare example of a post-WW II metal-and-glass skyscraper with a fire escape.

Going forward

The Life Safety Code has favored protected interior stairwells for new construction since its inception in 1927, provisions that remain in the code to this day. However, exterior fire escapes can be added to existing buildings of most uses—educational occupancies being a notable exception—if allowed by the local authorities, but without ladders (owing to the difficulty in using them under adverse conditions), or access via windows, which also present difficulties in safely gaining access to the fire escape. Access is only allowed by doors meeting specified criteria.

The code also includes provisions for inspection and maintenance of fire escapes. Like many other fire safety features, maintenance of fire escapes is essential to assure their usability and safety. Fire escapes must be maintained to be clear of obstructions, clear access within the building must be maintained via doors and windows, fire resistive opening protectives must be in place, and the structural integrity of the fire escape and its anchors to the building structure must be maintained. This is a critical focus of fire escape inspection; in January, one person was killed and two severely injured when a third-floor fire escape collapsed at an apartment building in Philadelphia. The people had ventured onto the fire escape balcony to smoke cigarettes during a birthday party.

Rust is the primary threat for the deterioration of cast and wrought iron. If the process is allowed to continue, the metal can completely deteriorate. Rust removal and prevention is the first step to fire escape conservation. Rust also occurs when moisture collects in joints, cracks, and crevices of the masonry where the fire escape is anchored. Corrosion can cause the iron and the masonry to deteriorate, weakening the anchorage to the structure. Bolts should be extracted and inspected as part of regular fire escape inspection. Replacement of hardware may be necessary if serious deterioration has occurred. Long-term neglect can lead to serious structural failure, including loss of anchorage to the masonry wall.

While fire exposure itself is widely recognized as a threat to the structural integrity of exposed wrought iron, such consideration was not typically provided for fire escape installations. There is no clear history on this topic. Clearly, flame impingement over a sufficient period of time on the supporting structure would eventually weaken the material and result in failure. That topic, however, has not been addressed in the installation criteria for fire escapes beyond the opening protectives required, presumably for the benefit of the building occupants who could be exposed while using the fire escape.

The use of fire escapes by the public in emergency conditions has long been presumed to be an undesirable experience judging from the report of Committee on Safety to Life almost 100 years ago. This concern is not unfounded, since people are not typically trained or drilled in the use of fire escapes. Human behavior also suggests that many people will find it extremely undesirable to exit onto a fire escape, typically onto a grated platform many feet above grade and often in inclement weather or in darkness. These devices are clearly intended to be used as a last resort in the event the interior routes become unusable. For these reasons, the maintaining of clear access and the regular testing of operable components is even more important to avoid injuries during egress by inexperienced and untrained occupants, as well as by first responders who may need to utilize fire escapes in an emergency.

In general, it can be argued that, based on a review of a number of the current codes, the requirements for inspection and maintenance of fire escapes are inconsistent and could be made stronger. While the codes typically are clear that fire escapes cannot be used in new construction, there are few requirements addressing fire escapes in existing buildings. Both
NFPA 1, Fire Code, and the Life Safety Code have only general references to the maintenance of fire escapes. Aside from a requirement to maintain the means of egress free of obstructions, there are no specific criteria for the frequencies or methods for inspections, painting, or load testing of fire escapes. The 2012 edition of the International Fire Code has expanded somewhat on the criteria for inspection, testing, and maintenance. A general review and revision of the codes could represent a significant improvement to the criteria for inspection and maintenance, and provide a corresponding improvement in life safety for building occupants and first responders. Emerging groups such as the National Fire Escape Association (nationalfireescapeassociation.org/) are working to raise awareness and to offer training and services regarding fire escapes. Standardized rules and regulations can help to increase the lifespan of the existing stock of fire escapes.

Also, additional criteria for upgrading the protection and arrangement of access to fire escapes at the time of building renovations should be specifically included in fire codes and existing building codes. Such renovations may be the only reasonable opportunity to improve the level of safety provided by fire escapes during the lifespan of a building.

Fire escapes will continue to be part of the built environment for years to come, and it is critically important that they be properly inspected and maintained, and that our codes and standards remain vigilant in providing owners and the enforcement community with the criteria to do so. Moreover, design professionals should look for opportunities during major building renovations to eliminate the use of fire escapes by improving other egress features whenever practical. We risk a major tragedy by allowing them to hide in plain sight. 

Carl F. Baldassarra, PE, is a principal with Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates in Northbrook, Illinois.

 

In This Section
  • 1914 Sound the Alarm 100 years ago, an NFPA committee sounded the alarm on fire escapes in its first report. A century later, we’re still wrestling with the problems presented by this Victorian-era technology.
  • Losing the Iron Decommissioning the fire escapes on a landmark building