A series of disastrous tenement fires in mid- to late-19th century in New York City led to the enactment of the first fire escape regulations in the United States. Tenements of the era typically had a single open stairwell for egress, useless when fire vented out of an adjacent apartment unit.
Over the next 100 years, exterior iron/steel fire escapes were installed as a second means of egress for tens of thousands of buildings across the country, not only on tenements but on factories, hospitals, and schools. They have proven to be not only an exit path for occupants but a platform for firefighting as well. By the 1960s, fire escapes fell out of favor and were removed from building codes as an acceptable component of means of egress. And yet, thousands of them still exist on old buildings. Many of them were installed more than 100 years ago and haven’t aged gracefully.
For years, it has been known that maintenance of existing fire escapes has not been a priority for many building owners. In 2012, the International Fire Code updated its requirements for fire escapes, including third-party inspection by registered design professionals, every five years. Besides looking for problems like corrosion and structural distress, missing rails, and nonfunctioning drop stairs/ladders, provisions for live load testing at 100 pound per square foot were also included.
GLENN CORBETT, PE, is the former assistant chief of the Waldwick (NJ) Fire Department, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York City, and a technical editor for Fire Engineering. He is the co-author of Brannigan’s Building Construction for the Fire Service, 5th Edition; editor of Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II; and an FDIC International executive advisory board member.