The Dangers of Fire Escapes

By Thomas N. Warren

Fire escapes have been part of building construction and the fire service since the late 1800s. Fire escapes were originally intended to provide a second means of egress from a building in the event of a fire when the primary means of escape—internal stairwells—were compromised by fire or smoke. This concept was very well intentioned when conceived, and many lives were saved as a result of fire escapes.

As the decades passed, fire escapes were still attached to many buildings and exposed to the weather, causing them to be compromised in different ways. New building construction design does not incorporate fire escapes as part of emergency egress. Today, buildings use modern fire codes that contain provisions like rated stairwells, rated fire doors, fire protection systems such as sprinklers, fire detection systems, panic hardware on doors of proper widths, illuminated “EXIT” signs and the use of fire resistive materials to make occupants safer.

(1) This fire escape features a cage built around the drop ladder so a civilian won’t fall off. However, this may be make it more difficult for a firefighter wearing SCBA to climb. (Photos by Mike Ciampo unless otherwise noted.)


The old fire escapes were constructed of cast or wrought iron and were attached to buildings with either through bolting—most commonly found in wooden structures—or mortar bolting in masonry structures. Fire escapes are held together by welding, bolts/nuts, rivets, or a combination of the three. Regular inspection and maintenance will allow for almost indefinite reliable service. However, this is where we find the greatest problem for firefighters today. The vast majority of fire escapes that firefighters will encounter have not been inspected or maintained for many years, if ever. One of the major problems found on most is that they are rusting from not properly being protected by paint. Rust eats through the components and can cause a failure when weight is placed on a stair tread or platform. Placing your life in the integrity of a fire escape can have catastrophic implications. Firefighters should use fire escapes with great caution, and every fire department should develop a standard operating procedure (SOP) on their use.

Fire escapes fall into three basic designs, and all three are prevalent in most urban areas: The exterior stairway, the party wall balcony, and the standard fire escape.  These three designs have many common features and construction methods, but they are different in their appearance.

(2) For this damaged fire escape, the drop ladder is missing, and firefighters would need to use a portable ladder for access or egress.  


Exterior Stairway Fire Escapes

The exterior stair fire escape is, as the name implies, a stairway that is attached to the exterior of a building that exits directly at ground level. Most of these fire escapes were constructed with some type of screen along the railings, landings, and stairs to provide for safer use. These fire escapes have wider landings and stairs than the other types of fire escapes because they were commonly installed in occupancies such as schools, places of public assembly, or in manufacturing settings. Often, there was a door or large window that would allow access to the fire escape from inside the building. On many larger multiple dwellings, they may exist in a shaft way or the throat of the building and also have access to the roof as well as the ground floor.


Party Wall Balcony Fire Escapes

This fire escape relies on the concept that an occupant fleeing smoke and fire can exit onto this fire escape and move horizontally across it to an adjoining apartment, and then enter that apartment and exit the building to safety. The fire escape will be constructed so that it runs across a firewall within the building. These fire escapes can join two apartments or in larger apartment buildings; one entire floor. In some cases, occupants may not be able to get to another apartment, trapping them on the fire escape, resulting in a need to be rescued by fire department ladders because there is no pathway to another floor level or ground level. Party wall balcony fire escapes are most typically found in older tenement style structures.


Standard Fire Escapes

This fire escape is the most common fire escape found in any American city. These fire escapes allow for access to all floors of the building as well as roof and ground access. The design incorporates a series of stairs, landings, gooseneck ladders (roof access), and dropping ladders or stairways for ground level access. Occupants can access these fire escapes usually through windows, and they can find a continual pathway to the ground or roof level. The gooseneck ladder is designed for access to the roof and is most often used by firefighters during ventilation operations. Use extreme caution when climbing these ladders; they are straight vertical ladders and normally located at the highest level of the building. Ensure you maintain a constant grip on the ladder and climb slowly and deliberately, putting your boots toward the outer rails. Bouncing up the center of the rung could cause a bent or failed rung or a slip-and-fall injury. The pathway used to exit from the fire escape to the ground is designed to maintain security for the occupants and, as such, must be activated to extend to the ground.

There are two popular designs of these pathways: The counter-balanced stairway and the drop ladder. The counter-balanced stairway consists of a stairway that is pivoted and held in place by weights, usually weighing several hundred pounds. In its normal state, the stairway is in the horizontal plane held in place by a latch. When the latch is activated, the stairway will swing down to the ground. This can be accomplished by a firefighter on the ground using a pike pole or by a fleeing occupant who puts his weight on the fire escape, which will drop the stairs.

(3) A rusted-out platform on this fire escape stair tower system caused a firefighter to fall through it at a working fire. Luckily, he was able to grab on to the window bars and stop himself from falling through while another firefighter came to his aide. (Photo by JJ Cassetta.)


The drop ladder is a vertical ladder that is attached to the outside of the fire escape landing that drops to the ground when activated. Like the counter-balanced stairway, the drop ladder fire escape can be activated by either an occupant on the fire escape by pulling it upward and releasing it from its holding hook or by a firefighter on the ground (in most cases). Firefighters should release the drop ladder by standing under the platform and reaching upward with a hook. If the ladder was to fall out of its track and fall outward, the firefighter would be out of the danger zone.


Time and Maintenance

There are two core problems with using fire escapes: Time and maintenance. We cannot stop the passage of time, and maintenance, being extremely expensive, all too often is ignored.

As a fire officer and incident commander, nothing would make me more anxious than seeing firefighters using fire escapes during firefighting operations. The stress that firefighting operations place on these old and deteriorating fire escapes goes well beyond their intended use and, after being exposed to the elements for up to 100 years, the odds are not on the firefighter’s side.

(4) This fire escape is attached to a wood frame structure recently covered in Stucco.


All three designs of fire escapes have the same potential for failure, and not one single design can be relied on to be more reliable than the others. They all suffer from rust, corrosion, rotting wood, cracked bricks or mortar joints, separated welds, freeze/thaw cycles, neglect, and improper maintenance. The result of these hazards are missing steps, missing bolts, separations, unreliable railing assemblies, compromised anchor points, separated drop ladder track guides, corrosion that prohibits drop ladders and stairways from being deployed and corroded rivets.

Firefighters should look closely at any fire escape before climbing it. Look for any separation of the fire escape from the exterior wall, missing steps, rust stains on the exterior of the building at the anchor points, bulging of any painted surface (indication of corrosion under the painted surface), handrails that are no longer in place or any twisted appearance of the landings and stair stringers. All of these signs will be readily apparent from the ground during daylight and should signal that the fire escape is compromised and unsafe to climb.

The more dangerous signs of a compromised fire escape may not be easy to identify, such as cracked mortar joints or moisture damaged wood at the anchor points. Firefighters should be aware that, when they choose to operate on a fire escape, they add considerable weight that was not intended when the fire escape was designed. A firefighter wearing all the required personal protective clothing, self-contained breathing apparatus, stretching hose, the weight of the water in the hose, nozzle reaction, forcible entry equipment, and backup firefighters may stress a fire escape to the point of collapse. It is important to note that many early fire codes require that fire escapes be constructed to design specifications for live loads of 100 pounds per square foot.

(5) This photo shows the ground floor landing with the vertical drop ladder, used for access to the ground.


A fire escape collapse can happen with little or no warning. Firefighters operating aerial devices should be mindful that striking the fire escape with the aerial device may trigger enough force, laterally or vertically, to cause the fire escape to collapse. When rescuing occupants or firefighters from fire escapes, placing ground ladders against the exterior wall of the building adjacent to the fire escape is the preferred method of ladder placement. Relying on our own equipment is always a better choice than placing your safety in the unknown integrity of a 70-year-old fire escape.

RELATED: Mike Ciampo on Fire EscapesJohn Flynn on Operating Safely on Fire EscapesPositioning Portable Ladders for Work on Fire Escapes

Fire escapes can also be compromised by factors other than time and maintenance. Many times, fire escapes are damaged by trucks moving around the building such as unloading dumpsters in the rear courtyards. Once the fire escape is struck, whether at the drop ladder or a landing on the second floor, the entire fire escape’s integrity is compromised because the entire fire escape is connected together as one unit. The truck will usually simply drive away and leave behind a damaged fire escape, unknown to anyone. Another problem for firefighters is the tendency of occupants to load fire escapes with potted plants, furniture, barbeque grills, bicycles, or anything else they want to store outside of their apartment. This added static load will continually stress a fire escape with additional weight for which it was not designed. Loading fire escapes with these types of items will also impede the movement of fleeing occupants and firefighting operations.

(6) On this fire escape, the safety railing is pulling out of the brick and mortar.


Many departments have SOPs regarding the use and inspection of fire escapes, but many departments do not. The formal inspection of fire escapes usually falls under the jurisdiction of the local building department. Permits for repairs and modifications are issued through local building departments; this presents a problem when the building department is not advising the fire department of permits being issued for repairs or modifications and, more importantly, inspection records of failed fire escapes. The result is that firefighters are often left in the dark about the status of the fire escapes in their district.

The best way to avoid being surprised when responding to buildings equipped with fire escapes is to perform simple observation inspections as part of your company drill program. Training time can be devoted to checking the fire escapes in your district for the visible hazards that can be seen while walking around a building; you don’t even have to enter the building.


(7) Example of a counter-balanced stairway.   


You will be surprised about the amount of information that can be gained from spending some time looking at fire escapes and identifying some of the hazards that firefighters need to know about. As long as fire escapes are attached to buildings, occupants will use them during fires, leaving firefighters as the ones who will be responsible to manage fire escape rescue operations. The more you know about the fire escapes in your district, the better off you will be when the time comes to manage these types of rescue operations.



1. Dunn V. Collapse of Burning Buildings. Fire Engineering Books & Videos.


Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.


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