Published on September 4, 2014.

1914: Sound the Alarm
An excerpt from the report of the Committee on Safety to Life at the 18th annual meeting of the NFPA

Outside Fire Escapes:
Mr. Forster: I think Secretary Wentworth will admit that I feel strongly upon the question of the efficiency of the outside fire escape. This subject has been considered fully on account of these disasters, which are fresh in the minds of the members who are interested in this movement. Now, your Committee raises this broad question, namely, whether we should go on record as recognizing the outside fire escape as a means of egress, or whether we should attack it and absolutely condemn it. It is my opinion, and it is that of many of our members with whom I have discussed this thing with earnestness, that the question of the value of the outside fire escape is one of the most important connected with the subject of egress. We should prepare a set of specifications which will cover a design useful for fire escapes, to be used in the future, provided that there are no more desirable means of egress.
The committee, while of the opinion that specifications for fire escapes of this sort are desirable, feels that a comparatively low limit should be fixed as to the number of stories of height.

Another idea in the minds of your Committee was that the escapes are to be shielded against fire where there is access of fire to the escapes, calling particular attention to the fact that in office buildings, hotels, clubs, dwelling houses and dormitories it is very difficult to get people to go into the halls, which are the first sections of the building to be filled with fire and smoke. Another thing is covered, namely, broad stairs and solid balconies, so that they may act as a shield against fire and smoke that may come up from below. When you get down to the last level you do not want to be confronted with one of those dangers in the form of a ladder to slide down and be injured possibly by people behind you. You want to have things planned so that it swings down without interference from above, and if you can have a permanent section for the ground, by all means get it. In other words, you want a proper fire escape, properly designed, and your buildings protected so as to afford the easiest and safest means to escape from them.

Your Committee has taken up these things item by item and specification by specification, and this report will go into the proceedings. The Committee recommends that these specifications be given a wide publicity, with opportunity for discussion, and that criticism and comment be fired back at the Committee in order that we may next year present a set of specifications which will be reasonably plain, and which we are willing to see incorporated into the laws of the country.

Reference is made in our specifications also to the individual type of fire escape as a means of exit from office buildings, hotels, lodging houses, dormitories, apartment houses, etc., where it is impossible, from the nature of the structure, to have every room opening upon a fire escape, and your Committee has outlined some suggestions covering that phase of the subject.

On page 471 of the April 1911 Quarterly appears the following:

“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 flame issuing from the window of any one floor cut off the descent of all on floors above it. Iron is quickly heated and is a good conductor of heat, and expansion of the bolts, stays and fastenings soon pulls the framework loose, so that the weight of a single body may precipitate it into the street or alley. Many a human being has grasped the hot rail of such a “fire escape” only to release it with a scream and leap from it in agony. 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, covered up with milk bottles, ice boxes and other obstructions.”

This powerful arrangement unquestionably is deserved by a very large percentage of the outside fire escapes in use today. The following common defects exist on many:

a. Inaccessible to many portions of buildings, except by going into the halls, which may be impassable owing to flames and smoke.
b. Unshielded against fire in lower stories.
c. Poor design, especially as regards steepness and lack of width.
d. Poor supports. Expansion bolts and even lag screws in wooden plugs have been used to support fire escapes.
e. Absence of any form of ladder or stair from the second floor to the ground, or complicated and inefficient arrangement of vertical drop ladders.
f. Poor condition. Fire escapes are generally regarded as a necessary evil, and receive very little attention.
g. Ice and snow covering.
h. Used for storage.

Admitting that all these defects have existed and do today, and that a fire escape on a building is usually an admission that life is not safe in it, the fact remains that the outside fire escape is the commonest special provision for escape, that it is written into the Statue books of the states, will long remain with us, that this Association should determine upon proper specifications for such escapes, and use its influence to have them adopted and enforced. With this in mind, your Committee has gathered data regarding the regulations of many states and most of the important cities in the United States, studied many of these in detail, tabulated the essential facts, and concluded that escapes built and located as hereinafter specified will greatly further the safety to life in our, on the whole, poorly constructed and poorly protected buildings.

Your Committee submits this data for your consideration, and the suggestion that this preliminary specification be sent broadcast for review and for criticism.

At the 1915 meeting a revised specification can probably be submitted for formal approval of the Association.