Escape Overload

By Michael N. Ciampo

Pulling up to the large multiple dwelling, we were met with an overcrowding condition on the front fire escape. Heavy smoke was issuing out many windows on numerous floors, and the drop ladder was still in the up position. Panic had already set in from the tenants being engulfed in smoke and an elderly woman blocking the path to safety. Nearby, a mother was dangling an infant off the first-floor landing. People on the sidewalk were yelling, “Drop the baby,” as a firefighter carrying a ladder made his way through the crowd, instinctively yelling, “Hold on, don’t drop the baby!”

Most of us think that fire escapes are evacuation devices that are fail-safe and made for the removal of numerous tenants from a burning building. Unfortunately, because of poor maintenance and daily exposure to the weather, fire escapes are a very dangerous option to use and rely on. Fire escapes are normally constructed of steel that is welded and bolted together and attached to the building with lag bolts in brick and wood-frame construction. In some installations, threaded rods extending through the bearing walls will support the platforms. Fire escapes consist of the following structural elements: a vertical drop ladder (manually released from its holding hook) or pull-down stairs (which may have a counterweight design to release them), which allow fleeing tenants to have access from the first-floor platform to the ground; platforms on each level (normally servicing two apartments); stairs to access each level; and possibly a gooseneck ladder, which leads from the top-floor landing to the roof. Although there are other variations, these are the most common structural elements.

As the firefighter approached the fire escape, he quickly placed the 24-foot extension ladder next to the first-floor platform opposite the drop ladder. He placed the ladder’s tip about one to three rungs above the railing, resting it on the building. (Resting the ladder on the building and not on the metal fire escape prevents it from sliding from side to side if it is bumped into or when transitioning from the ladder to the fire escape.) Realizing there was still severe overcrowding, he had a civilian foot the ladder as he went to the opposite side to release the drop ladder.

Releasing drop ladders isn’t an easy task to accomplish; many times they are painted or rusted in place in their slide rails, making it difficult to release and drop them to the ground. Many firefighters choose to bang the sides of the drop ladder a few times with the hook to help free it prior to lifting the ladder and releasing it from its holding hook. Unfortunately, there is a chance these ladders can come out of their tracks and fall outward and away from the fire escape when released. Position yourself beneath the first-floor platform for protection when hitting and releasing a vertical drop ladder. For a counterbalanced stairway (with heavy weights and a cable system), stand out in front and not under the stairway. If the cable snaps and the weights collapse, you could sustain a serious injury if you are operating beneath it.

Once the drop ladder was released, tenants immediately began climbing down the ladder as the firefighter went up the extension ladder to assist in the removal efforts. (A narrow vertical drop ladder is the most difficult ladder to climb.) Meanwhile, the fire escape was still severely overcrowded. Personnel placed another portable ladder in the same manner as the first portable but to the second-floor landing on the same side of the fire escape’s drop ladder. The chauffeur was moving the tower ladder’s bucket to the upper floors to remove some of that overcrowding. As the bucket approached the side of the platform, the chauffeur placed it with the basket’s floor just about equal to the landing’s floor. This allowed a firefighter to straddle the fire escape railing, making it easier to maintain balance and lift children and assist adults into the bucket. Remember, because of the weight condition on the fire escape, this firefighter should be belted into the bucket for safety purposes. Fire escapes have been known to collapse in extreme overcrowding conditions.

When it’s necessary to remove numerous people off the fire escape with the bucket, you don’t have to place them on the ground—you can remove them to an adjoining building’s fire escape or roof. They will still need assistance down, but the bucket can get back to the job of removing others off the overcrowded fire escape faster.

When the firefighter on the first-floor landing was done on that level, he proceeded up the stairs to the next level to assist in the removal of those tenants. He used caution climbing the stairs and didn’t run up the middle of them; he placed his boot near the ends of the stairs where they are supported. Many times, running up the center of the stairs and bouncing as you proceed can jar an unsecured step loose, causing you to fall. Always maintain a grip on the railing while using these stairs. Also, try not to lean on the outer railings of the fire escape; there have been cases where they have snapped off because of deterioration.

As the people were being removed, a firefighter closed two of the windows that were issuing smoke; this greatly reduced the smoke and panic on the fire escape. We often assume that windows need to be ventilated; however, some situations require closing the window instead. Remember, when faced with severe overcrowding in the front, odds are a similar situation could be occurring on the rear fire escape!

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 25-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on

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