Operating Safely on Fire Escapes


In more than 20 years as a MEMBER OF THE Yonkers (NY) Fire Department, I have had to use fire escapes many times. Long ago, I came to realize that fire escapes, while designed to be a method of emergency egress from a building for that building’s occupants, are actually used far more by firefighters than building occupants. Of course, fire escapes have saved many building occupants over the years.

Unfortunately, despite the many benefits of fire escapes for building occupants and firefighters, I have seen firefighters become seriously injured while operating on or around fire escapes. Early in my career, I became friends with a senior Yonkers firefighter who had previously been injured and eventually disabled as a result of being struck in the head by a flowerpot that was on a fire escape and knocked off by fleeing occupants. He was working in the area below.

Shortly after my graduation from the Fire Academy, one of my classmates was operating on the fireground when a fire escape drop ladder came loose from its tracks while being dropped by other members. My classmate and his lieutenant were struck and injured. The lieutenant suffered serious, painful, disabling neck and back injuries.

Later in my career, another friend of mine had climbed a fire escape to reach and assist several building occupants who had scrambled out onto the fire escape to flee an apartment fire. A frantic mother placed an infant in his arms, and he began to descend the fire escape. The fire escape became so crowded with panicked residents that this firefighter, along with the baby, was knocked off the second-floor fire escape landing. Heroically, he managed to orient himself in the air so that he landed on his SCBA and the baby, cradled in his arms, was protected. He fortunately wound up returning to work, and he loves to tell the story that, as thanks for his efforts, another firefighter scooped up the baby and left him there lying in pain to be showered by glass from a window being vented. Another time, another member and I had climbed a fire escape drop ladder to the second-floor landing. We were preparing to vent-enter-search the second-floor apartments. The firefighter with me put down his halligan tool to don his SCBA face piece. He inadvertently knocked the halligan tool off the landing, and we watched helplessly as it spiraled down, striking a firefighter below who was forcing entry to the locked storefront rolldown gates. The firefighter below was injured; fortunately, his helmet took the brunt of the impact, and he returned to work.

Most recently, during the time I served as captain of Rescue 1, one of my firefighters was operating on a second-floor fire escape landing, attempting to reach out and vent a window not served by that landing, when he slipped and fell, somersaulted in the air, landed awkwardly, and was impaled by his halligan tool. He suffered very critical injuries and was permanently disabled.

This article addresses the lessons learned from these mishaps.


Understanding different types of fire escapes and the tactics involving their use is important for both urban and suburban firefighters. For the purpose of this article, the term “fire escape” refers to open iron or steel (and in some parts of the country now, aluminum) balconies with steep, generally narrow stairs connecting them, placed on the outside of buildings, primarily intended as a means of egress from the building in case of fire.

The first patent for a fixed metal fire escape with stairs in the United States was issued to Anna Connelly in 1887, and she is generally credited for its invention.1 However, as many as 20 years earlier (1867), New York State passed a public law, the First Tenement House Act, which required fire escapes and a window for every room.2 Throughout the United States, fire escapes began to be required in new construction around the turn of the 20th century and were also widely required to be retrofitted to existing buildings depending on local building codes at the time. In most of the United States, fire escapes have not been allowed in new construction, with certain exceptions, since the late 1960s, since interior fire resistant stairs were determined to be a better alternative. Therefore, most of the fire escapes we encounter are anywhere from 40 to more than 100 years old. Sometimes, the buildings to which they are attached are even older. For the most part, these fire escapes have been poorly maintained. Although fire escapes exist for the main purpose of providing a secondary means of egress for tenants from the interior, firefighters regularly use them to access the roof or to reach interior portions of the building for ventilation; rescue; or, occasionally, to advance hoselines.


During your size-up, when you strive to get a quick look at a minimum of at least three sides of the building, do you see fire escapes? If so, what in particular should you look for regarding their placement and construction?

The first thing to note is if people are out on the fire escapes when you arrive. If so, keep this in mind. If the fire has moved so quickly or the alarm has been delayed such that people inside the building have been forced out onto the fire escapes, chances are that additional people are still inside the building and are in more dire need of fire department assistance (rescue and fire extinguishment) than those on the fire escapes. The people on the fire escapes have actually already “escaped” the fire. These people will most likely be in a panicked state, and they are not completely out of harm’s way; but in the overwhelming majority of cases, the priorities for first-arriving fire companies should be forcible entry and search, placement of hoselines, and accessing the roof for ventilation purposes.

(1) Typical fire escape stairs to the roof with platform. (Photos by author.)

Once these critical tasks are underway, firefighters should be assigned to assist the individuals on the fire escapes to get down safely. Of course, this is a judgment call that must be made on a case-by-case basis. If fire or heavy smoke is venting out a window or door right beneath or next to the people on the fire escapes, or if they are about to drop a baby, don’t ignore them. Take the necessary steps to remove them. However, don’t confuse removing or assisting people who have already rescued themselves with actual rescue, which may still be needed on the interior of the building.

The above statements may be somewhat controversial. Some will insist that any people on the fire escapes are still in danger and firefighters must immediately assist them to prevent them from falling. Experience has taught us, however, that in the overwhelming majority of cases, people who manage to make it to the fire escapes can make it to the ground safely without fire department assistance. There is a risk that these people may fall; however, the risk of losing people on the inside of the building is greater.

What can the design and placement of a fire escape tell us during our size-up? There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding fire escape design and placement, and the fire escapes in different parts of the country tend to have slightly different characteristics. However, there are some rules of thumb. Generally, when a balcony serves more than one window, the fire escape balcony serves more than one room and often more than one apartment. Is there a fire escape on the front (street side) of the building? If so, this is usually an indication that there is also one on the rear and that, more often than not, the fire escape on the rear will have a gooseneck that may be used to access the roof. The reason for this is that the building configuration/apartment layout required only one fire escape, which was almost always placed on the back. However, if there is a fire escape with a gooseneck on the front of the building, there probably is no fire escape in the rear. In any event, at all fires in multistory buildings, the incident commander should determine as soon as possible whether there is a fire escape in the rear and communicate this information to all members.

Do you see a fire escape on a building that normally would not require a fire escape, such as a private house? This is an indicator that the original occupancy of this building may have changed. For instance, a building originally intended as a one- or two-family home may now be a single-room occupancy (SRO) or group home, or the attic may have been converted to living space.

Do you see fire escape balconies or platforms that are not connected by stairways or ladders? These are known as party wall balconies. The apartments connected by this type of fire escape landing are separated by a fire wall, or sometimes these party wall balconies connect apartments in two separate buildings, so in theory the residents who are forced out onto the balcony by smoke or fire will self-evacuate into the adjoining apartment. In many instances, this will not be practical because the adjoining apartment may be difficult to access because of window gates or security measures employed by the tenants of that apartment. Even if it were practical, normally, once people have “escaped from” a fire building, they are, understandably, hesitant to reenter, so fire department members will have to remove these people. Whether this is done from the interior or the exterior by ladder, and how long these people can wait, will depend on fire and smoke conditions. As mentioned above, often, more people, still in the interior of the building, are in greater peril than those out on the fire escapes. However, be aware that, since people on party balcony fire escapes have no way down to street level on their own without reentering the building, you may have to remove them sooner rather than later.

Firefighters have also been seriously injured by items that were knocked off fire escape landings by fleeing residents or other firefighters. Many fire escapes are loaded with flowerpots, bicycles, and other objects. Look up as you approach a fire escape; be aware of these potential hazards.

Still other dangers to firefighters operating on fire escapes, particularly at night, are clotheslines and, occasionally, cable television wires, extension cords, antennas, and satellite dishes. Storing on a fire escape items that will obstruct the exit pathway is a violation. During inspections or prefire planning visits, these violations should be brought to the building manager’s attention and be rectified immediately, or a violation order should be written.


Do these fire escapes have drop ladders, counterbalance stairs, or gooseneck ladders?

Drop Ladders

Most fire escapes have a drop ladder, also known as a guillotine ladder, which is a heavy iron or steel ladder, usually fixed to the side of the lowest balcony landing and held off the ground by an iron or steel hook attached on a hinge to the second-floor balcony landing or to a point on the building wall above. This is done to prevent intruders from gaining access to the building through the fire escape and also to keep the sidewalk or roadway below clear.

(2) This drop ladder rail came off its guide (all too typical).

To reach the ground from the lowest balcony landing or to reach the lowest balcony landing from the ground, you must drop the drop ladder, or let it down. Lower the drop ladder by lifting it off the aforementioned hook (which will pendulum free) and then lowering it, or letting it drop, to the ground. You can do this from the first-floor balcony level or by reaching up from ground level with a firefighting hook. Keep in mind that these drop ladders are very heavy and firefighters and civilians have been seriously injured by them. Often, when released from the hook, they break loose from the rusted tracks or guides designed to hold them in place and fall out and away from the fire escape instead of straight down as they are supposed to. These heavy ladders drop so quickly and create such an impact load that they often cause a concrete sidewalk to chip or crack, causing a trip hazard at the base of the ladder. Use caution in this area.

(3) The proper positioning for safely lowering a drop ladder.

For your protection, stand under the balcony (platform) section when dropping a drop ladder, and make sure no firefighters or civilians are anywhere in the immediate area. When time permits, or immediately if necessary for rescues or removals, place a ground ladder to the lowest balcony landing. This ladder will be much easier and safer for firefighters and civilians to climb. If possible, place this ground ladder on the opposite side of the balcony from the drop ladder with the tip resting on the building wall adjacent to the fire escape; have one beam of the ladder touching the balcony railing. Keep in mind that a ladder placed to the railing of the fire escape landing can slide when firefighters or civilians mount or dismount the ladder. The ladder can also obstruct operations on the fire escape. When the fire escape is overcrowded, you can place a second ground ladder next to the second-floor landing to assist in civilian removals.

(4) This angle iron has broken loose from its weld and will fall to the ground when the drop ladder is lowered. This piece is part of the assembly that holds the drop ladder in its tracks.


Counterbalanced Stairs

Some fire escapes are designed with counterbalanced stairs instead of a drop ladder, although this is much less common in most localities. This system is more likely to be found on commercial occupancies. Fire escapes with counterbalanced stairs are often found on old factories being converted into loft apartments. These fire escapes have, instead of a drop ladder, a set of stairs to the ground attached on a hinge system. A counterweight system usually holds up the stairs; the stairs are designed to go down gradually as the occupants walk out onto them and their weight exceeds the opposing weight of the counterbalance system. Counterbalanced stairs can be very dangerous. Do not stand underneath counterbalanced stairs or the counterweight at any time, especially when you must pull down the stairs with a hook to gain access.

(7) This very old counterweight stair is attached to an overhead pulley system.

Many of these systems are very old and ill-maintained. A lot more can go wrong with counterbalanced stairs than with a drop ladder. The stairs are heavier than a drop ladder and are attached on a hinge, which may fail. The counterweight itself, attached to the stairs or to the chain or cable attached to an overhead pulley system, is very heavy (as much as 400 to 500 pounds) and may come loose from its attachment. As a general rule, do not use these stairs unless you are sure they are in good condition and you know how to operate the design with which you are dealing (there are many different types). Place a ground ladder to the balcony landing instead. Fire service texts lack detailed information concerning counterbalanced fire escape systems.

(8) A very odd (and dangerous) counterweight system that has been retrofitted to a drop ladder. Always look up and expect the unexpected.

Much of the information I was able to glean on these types of stairs came from David Frickanisce of F.F. Frickanisce Iron Works in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. This company specializes in the repair and replacement of fire escapes. Frickanisce is is not a fan of counterbalanced stair systems. He points out, “These stairs, when in the up position, are difficult to employ. A person must walk out onto the front tips of the steps until the stair begins to slowly fall. This is going to be inherently difficult for senior citizens and children; [it may be almost] impossible for someone with a handicap or impaired mobility.” He related several recent incidents in the Pittsburgh area wherein the stairs became stuck halfway down, forcing the tenants to jump from the now fixed-in-place stairway. Even more concerning, he told me of several counterweight failures he has experienced that caused serious injury to people below.

(9) Drop ladders will typically bend when dropped, which is evidence of how heavy they are and how much damage they can do to the human body.


Gooseneck Ladders

A gooseneck ladder is attached to the topmost fire escape landing, which extends straight up to the roof, over the roof line, and then bends down (like a gooseneck) and attaches to the roof structure. Normally, the ends of the ladder are lagged into the roof joist and are covered with the roof tar. In some instances, the neck of the ladder can also have two metal support arms, which are also tied into the roof joist or parapet for added support. Climbing a gooseneck ladder can be very dangerous. It is difficult when carrying a tool and almost impossible when carrying a saw. So, use a strap on the saw.

(5) Proper positioning for climbing a questionably anchored gooseneck ladder. Note also the saw on the strap.

Another option for bringing a saw to the roof while climbing a gooseneck ladder is to tie a utility cord or rope to the saw. After the firefighter has reached the roof, he can pull up the saw with the rope or cord. As an aside, remember to remove the strap from the saw before starting it so it doesn’t get tangled up in the blade. Before beginning your climb up the gooseneck ladder, apply gradual, firm pressure to the ladder to see if it pulls out of the wall, but don’t yank on it.

(6) Resist the temptation to jump down from here, creating an impact load.

When climbing the gooseneck ladder, as with any ladder, always maintain three points of contact (two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand). Also, if there is enough clearance between the ladder and the wall, position yourself so that one arm and one foot are between the ladder and the wall. It’s a little tricky, but not too bad; doing this will tend to pull the weight of the ladder into, and not away from, the building, which will greatly decrease the chance that the ladder will detach from the building with you on it. If it is not practical to climb the gooseneck ladder in this manner because of a lack of clearance, climb it as you would a drop ladder, being careful to place your feet near the side rails of the ladder. This minimizes deflection and makes it less likely that you will break a rung and fall and injure yourself.

(10) A typical gooseneck ladder.

Remember, these fire escapes are very old; have been exposed to the elements; and, more often than not, have been inadequately maintained. The point where the gooseneck ladder attaches to the roof often rots out. Many times, it is “repaired” with no more than a regular, generous application of tar.

Firefighters are often injured while operating on fire escapes; the failure of a stair tread or railing is one of the most common causes of these injuries. Again, always maintain three points of contact. Visually check each tread before you step; shift your weight onto each tread slowly. Step to the outside or inside of the tread; avoid the middle portion to minimize deflection. Try not to lean against or pull on railings. If it is necessary to shift your weight against or stand on a railing or to hold onto it for balance, apply gradual pressure first to make sure it will hold. When going down fire escape stairs, go backward; if you trip or if a tread fails, falling into the stairs sure beats the alternative.

(11) Use the slim-profile maneuver to get through this space while wearing SCBA.

Many, if not most, fire escapes will require the use of the “slim-profile” maneuver when traversing the narrow balcony landing between the stairs and the wall. Keep in mind that if many people are coming down while you are going up, it will be very difficult and time consuming to get through these spaces with tools, turnouts, and SCBA. In the past, it was a “trick of the trade” in many urban fire departments for ladder company members, when fire escapes were crowded, to ascend more quickly by stepping out onto the railing at each balcony landing, sidestepping over, and then stepping back onto the next stairway. This would enable the firefighters to bypass the narrow space between the stairs and the wall and to avoid many of the people coming down. However, this technique has fallen out of favor and is no longer recommended because of the aging condition and unreliability of so many fire escapes today.


Some states and municipalities have stricter fire escape certification requirements than others. However, in all cases, where a fire escape exists, it is required to be maintained as an exit. Therefore, if treads, rungs, or rails are missing or broken; the fire escape is rusted or in need of painting; or other defects are visible, these conditions present hazards to the public and fire department members and are violations of the means of egress maintenance provisions of the fire code that should be documented by the fire or building department so that they may be corrected by the building owner as soon as possible.


1. United States Patent and Trademark Office, www.uspto.gov/.

2. Lower East Side Tenement Museum Web site-description of New York Tenement Laws, http://www.tenement.org/features_dolkart2.html/.

JOHN FLYNN is deputy chief and a 20-year veteran of the Yonkers (NY) Fire Department. He has served as an instructor at two Yonkers Probationary Fire Academies and was an adjunct fire instructor for the New York State Fire Academy, teaching technical rescue. He was assigned as captain of Rescue 1 for nine years. He attended Fordham University and has a degree in fire protection technology from Corning Community College.

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