Means of Escape in Residential Fires

The tragedy in Philadelphia two weeks ago, where 12 individuals lost their lives in a two-family home fire, underscores the importance of exit requirements in residential buildings ( including one-and two-family dwellings, apartments, hotels, and board and care facilities). Let’s take a moment and review means of escape concepts a in these types of occupancies and the importance of establishing and practicing home fire escape plans. Keep in mind, code requirements in your specific area may vary from this guidance; however, the concepts are often very similar.

What are the exit requirements?

The requirements for exits in residential occupancies pertain to those that are  inside a residential unit, also known as a dwelling unit, and those applicable once an occupant is outside the dwelling unit. Inside the dwelling unit, the means of escape criteria provides a way out of the dwelling unit in an emergency – this criteriais a less stringent requirement than its counterpart, means of egress. Means of egress is an occupant’s way out of the building once outside their personal dwelling unit. As occupants spend a significant amount of time in their homes, they tend to be more familiar with the layout of their particular space, thus reducing the need for the more stringent requirements found in means of egress. However, means of escape will still be required.

The concept of escape and egress is used in one- and two-family dwellings, lodging or rooming houses, apartments, hotels and dormitories, board and care facilities, and daycare homes as they are covered in NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®.  This blog will focus on the requirements for the means of escape that are foundational to those residential occupancies.

Whenever a dwelling unit has more than two rooms, all living and sleeping areas are required to have a primary and secondary means of escape unless 1) the room has access directly to the exterior via a door leading to ground level or 2) the dwelling unit is fully protected by an automatic fire sprinkler system.

The primary means must provide unobstructed access to the outside at ground level via a door, stairway, or ramp. This is almost always also the main entrance into/out of the dwelling unit. The secondary means of escape is intended to provide an alternate route in an emergency if the primary means becomes blocked. The four options for a secondary means of escape include:

  • another primary means of escape or,
  • passage through an adjacent non-lockable space which has an approved means of escape or,
  • a window or,
  • a bulkhead from a basement level.

The figure below illustrates the concept of primary and secondary means of escape.

When a doorway is part of the means of escape it must be a minimum of 24 in (61 cm) wide for bathrooms and rooms under 70 ft2 (6.4 m2) all others must be a minimum of 28 in (71.1 cm) wide. The height of all doors must be a minimum of 6.5 ft (1.98 m). Doors can be sliding or swinging and must not be locked against egress except with approved release mechanisms.

In new dwelling units not protected throughout with an automatic fire sprinkler system where the area of a story exceeds 2000 ft2 two primary means of escape, located apart from each other are required.

Providing windows as a means of escape is a common way to fulfill the secondary means of escape requirement, especially on lower floor levels.  An operable window may be used as a secondary means of escape provided it is:

  • within 20 ft of the ground or
  • directly accessible by fire apparatus or
  • -opens onto an exterior balcony or
  • if below ground level, has a window well.

Home Fire Escape Plan

Developing a home fire escape plan is one mechanism of identifying and communicating the means of escape in your residence. Code required means of escape provides an opportunity; however, it is important that occupants know where they are, how to access them quickly, and to practice using them regularly.

Gather everyone you live with and take some time today to identify the primary and secondary means of escape in each living and sleeping space. Ensure they are not blocked by storage or furniture; the locking mechanisms, if permitted, operate easily, and everyone can use them. Schedule some time to practice using both the primary and secondary means. For more on how to develop your plan check out How to make a home fire escape plan from NFPA.


Codes require safe ways out of a residence in the event of an emergency, planning for them is the responsibility of the architect or engineer designing the structure, installing them is the responsibility of the contractor, verifying the installation is the responsibility of the inspector, but knowing how to use them is the responsibility of all occupants. For information on the code requirements check out NFPA 1 and NFPA 101, and visit our public education site for more information on home fire escape plans and other public education messages.


Dwelling Unit - One or more rooms arranged for complete, independent housekeeping purposes, with space for eating, living, and sleeping; facilities for cooking; and provisions for sanitation [NFPA 1].

Means of Escape - A way out of a building or structure that does not conform to the strict definition of means of egress but does provide an alternate way out [NFPA 1, NFPA 101].

Means of Egress - A continuous and unobstructed way of travel from any point in a building or structure to a public way consisting of three separate and distinct parts: (1) the exit access, (2) the exit, and (3) the exit discharge [NFPA 101].

Important Notice: Any opinion expressed in this blog is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the official position of NFPA or its Technical Committees. In addition, this piece is neither intended, nor should it be relied upon, to provide professional consultation or services.

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Robin Zevotek
Robin Zevotek
Principal Fire Protection Engineer with NFPA Technical Services, specializing in fire engineering and emergency response

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