Construction Concerns: Fire Escapes

Article and photos by Gregory Havel

Fire escapes (Photo 1) are open metal stairways attached to the side of a building, They are rarely installed today, since modern building and fire codes require interior stairways with fire-rated enclosures as part of each of the exit paths between the floors and the ground level. However, older cities have thousands of structures with fire escapes that were either part of the original construction or an addition at a time when building codes changed and affected even existing structures.

A typical fire escape has a balcony near the level of the window sills on each floor; it may serve one apartment or an office suite (Photo 2) or two or more apartments or office suites (Photo 1). The stair between the bottom fire escape balcony and the ground level may be a fixed stairway (Photo 2), a counterbalanced stairway (Photo 1), or a drop ladder (more on these later).

Since fire escapes are exposed to weather at all times and since many fire escapes have been in place for more than a century and the steel or wrought iron of which they are constructed rusts when exposed to weather; they have a record of failure when used by building occupants and by firefighters. Failure is likely to occur at the connections between the metal parts of the fire escape and n the fire escape and the building, although the steel bars of landings and steps may also be rusted through.

The metal parts of the fire escape were usually connected with bolts or rivets, although some were constructed or reinforced by welding. When a steel or iron connection is sufficiently corroded, it may no longer be able to support its designed live load and may collapse while in use. In a few cases, the connections became so corroded that the fire escape collapsed under its own weight (dead load).

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The quality of the connection between the fire escape and the masonry wall supporting it depends on the method of connection used; the skill and cooperation of the masons and ironworkers doing the construction; and the maintenance provided over the decades since it was installed. Photo 3 shows one method of attaching a fire escape to an existing wall: The bolts connecting the support brackets to the wall are run all the way through the wall and through steel plates inside the building. Other methods using concealed connections were often used when the fire escape was part of a new building.

Click to enlarge

Assume that the fire escapes are unsafe for use if they are rusty and have little or no paint; if the masonry wall to which they are connected has open mortar joints or cracked bricks at the connection points; and if there is storage directly beneath them, including garbage cans, dumpsters, and recycling bins.

Maintenance of fire escapes on the buildings in our response areas should be an item on the checklist for company-level and bureau-level fire inspections; their condition should be noted on prefire plans for each building.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1, Fire Code, 2009 edition, states in Chapter 14.15 that all “secondary means of escape” must comply with the requirements of NFPA 101.

NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, 2009 edition, contains the requirements for fire escape stairways and balconies in Chapter 7.2.8 (Means of Egress: Components: Fire Escape Stairs).

For detailed information on hazards to firefighters using fire escapes, see Chapter 15 “The Dangers of Fire Escapes” in Chief Vincent Dunn’s Safety and Survival on the Fireground (Fire Engineering Books, 1992). Also, see “Operating Safely on Fire Escapes” by John Flynn in the March 2009 edition of Fire Engineering.

Gregory Havel is a member of the Burlington (WI) Fire Department; a retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II and fire officer II, an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College, and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 30 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.

Subjects: Building construction for firefigher operations, construction hazards, fire escapes

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