Ideal Conditions and Actual Very Different—Not Always Possible to Alter Old Buildings to Accomodate New Ideas— Must Make the Best of Conditions and Use the Outside Escapes to Best Advantage
WHEN conditions as to the height, construction, area and occupancy of buildings became such as to render necessary emergency exits in addition to the ordinary stairs, the first of these to be generally adopted was the permanent ladder alongside of a tier of windows. Forty years ago, this was considered a very expensive affair and a great burden upon the property owner. Only after long continued efforts did its use become common.
As the ladders became inadequate, or were considered too dangerous for women to descend, outside iron stairways were required, and as these cost much more, they stirred up 4in even greater protest. It was no uncommon thing to have to carry fire escape cases to the State supreme courts. Such stairs have now largely supplanted the ladder, especially where large numbers of people may have to take advantage of them, but to bring this about meant years of struggle. Few fire chiefs ever considered either style of escape entirely satisfactory, even though their opinion was continually urged. The many deficiencies were commonly known and admitted, but the first thought had to be of a meansof getting people away from smoke and flame. However, about the time that the building owners began to look upon them as a necessary evil and to stop fighting whatever was an expenditure of money for escapes, quite a few fire experts outside of the departments came out with condemnation of the exterior ladders and stairs and wanted those now installed promptly removed. The objections stated were those heard many times before; namely, that such escapes are of limited capacity and of a design and construction not entirely safe at the best. That snow and ice impair their efficiency and that smoke or flame from openings along their course may prevent the use of them entirely. All of these drawbacks had been fully realized for years.
Undoubtedly, we are of one mind as to these points and further agree that buildings should be so constructed as not to need such escapes. Moreover, we would be greatly pleased to have emergency exits of every kind in the sheltered interiors, secure from smoke, flame and weather. But we cannot get away from the human element and practical conditions; the facts that are soon apparent to those who have to be responsible for the safety of life in buildings and which facts the theorists seldom have to deal with. City officials have much more to do with the older class of buildings than with the new ones just planned or under construction, and it is with the former that the chief obstacles are met. It is more or less easy to secure the placing of ideal exit facilities in the plans of new buildings, but usually next to impossible to compel their installation in those that have been standing from ten to fifty years, and which, “complied with all city requirements when they were erected,” as we hear every day. Generally it is only in the cities where a terrible disaster is a recent memory, that any headway can be made with satisfactory interior escapes in the old buildings.
Therefore, whether we like it or not, we find that the fire escape regulations and the enforcement thereof, become in practice one thing for new construction and another for old. The experts meet and denounce exterior iron ladders and stairs as deathtraps and every thing else that is pernicious, thereby incidentally increasing the fears of people who are likely to have nothing else to depend upon for the next ten or fifteen years. But we can get safe escapes into the new buildings without extravagant language, which also does not help us to install them in the old. In fact, very little except the cost of escapes makes any impression upon the owners of the old wooden joisted structures, no longer profitable because of more modern buildings nearby, or by reason of a shift in the business center. Let a city official demand more than an escape of moderate cost on an old building, and the owner, his attorneys and friends, are running from Mayor to councilmen or commissioners with protests and threats. Sometimes no matter how an ordinance may read, the courts are unable to see the need of a better escape than has served the purpose at some fire in the past. Should we succeed, their next move may he to amend the ordinance and even take away from us what we can require now. Public sentiment often has the greatest weight after all. The laws cannot be enforced without it and the process of bringing it up to advanced and safe standards is by no means a rapid one.
* Paper read before the annual convention of the Pacific Coast Association of Fire Chiefs at Oakland, Cal.
When we consider the arguments of those who have no worries about dealing with property owners, architects and contractors, we cannot always agree with them as to the circumstances. For instance, we usually hear ot the failure of the outside fire escape at the Triangle Waist disaster in New York City several years ago, and this was a most deplorable failure unquestionably, but we also know there was a locked door and are moved to ask if this renders all doors objectionable.
The general belief at the present time is that the conditions contributing to that fearful loss of life, including the locked door, were so hazardous that lives would have been lost with the best interior escapes. Probably if that swarm of foreign girls, and the mass of light combustible material, tables, chairs and sewing machines, had been located in a one-story building, with the usual number of doors and windows, a similar flash fire would have resulted fatally. With so much light cotton stuff in the narrow passages between tables and machines, and no automatic sprinklers to so much as retard the flame, the girls in the center of the room would have a poor chance of reaching a door, locked or otherwise.
Comparison with Life Boats
Most of the other instances cited against outside fire escapes, notably those in Philadelphia and Binghamton, are similarly extreme and uncommon. There is no use in expecting a great deal of safety from the means of escape provided in a powder mill. Had any of those buildings been properly safeguarded by enclosing the stairways and elevator shafts, to say nothing of installing sprinkler systems, the flames could not have run riot from cellar to roof, and the occupants might have used either inside or outside stairs with safety.
If exterior escapes are a delusion and a snare, one may ask what is to be said of lifeboats? Hundreds of lives have been lost at sea by the swamping of lifeboats or by people freezing or dying of exhaustion in them. It is not at all uncommon for nearly everybody in a boat to be thrown into the water during the lowering from the davits. Men and women have clung to the seats in desperation for hours, only to be swept off by the waves and drowned. Like our fire escape critics, we might say that all this is entirely unnecessary; that by the use of better construction, more bulkheads and so on, vessels may be made practically fireproof and unsinkable, but unfortunately, it is not done. We have to meet conditions as we find them and not even the frightful submarine warfare has brought about much improvement. Practically all the ships now carrying the world’s commerce can be sent to the bottom as quickly as the average city building is destroyed by fire, and the only hope of either passenger or crew is in the lifeboats and still more lifeboats.
Those who advocate the so-called “horizontal escape,” the exit through a doorway in a fire wall from one section of a floor to the one adjoining, are especially zealous in condemning all other means of escape. Their ideas as to their own plan are nearly perfect in theory, but in practice there are two serious difficulties in addition to the cost of building firewalls. First is the chance that one or more doors may be open in this wall and on a lower level, thus allowing smoke or flame to spread into the section of the building to which people are escaping, in which case they are as badly off as before. Secondly, we have the stubborn fact that those who control one occupancy always insist upon locking all doors in a wall which separates them from another. We know what trouble it is to keep fire doors in order and not blocked open and useless, and no property owner is willing to leave his premises exposed to such prowlers or burglars as may gain an entrance next door. In a building of one occupancy, like a public institution, the “horizontal escape” should be nearly ideal if the dividing wall has no openings below. If people rush through a fire wall only to find smoke or flames coming up from below, or an owner in the next space has locked his doors to keep out thieves, the victims who find their escape cut off would be glad enough to find one of the despised ladders or stairways outside a window.
Have to Take the Best That Can Be Had
Often those who criticise exterior iron fire escapes so severely, appear to be finding especial fault with city officials and firemen for tolerating them at all. And yet we are entirely willing to admit that the majority of buildings we have to deal with are the old style wooden joisted and studded, which simply mean combustibles racked up in the best possible way for burning, and that on these buildings there should be the best means of escape that can be devised; much better than is required for those of later design and good materials. In spite of this, knowing the difficulties that confront us, we have to take the best we can get and accept the outside iron fire escape.
Slow Burning Partitions Needed
The ideal condition that we should strive to obtain, is of course one in which people caught in a building where a fire breaks out, can walk quietly down stairways, protected from smoke, heat and flame, and this means such construction and maintenance that a fire is unlikely to start and just as unlikely to spread rapidly. This is a simple matter of safe construction, the reduction of areas and the protection of openings, and a most necessary part of it is to use the Tower Escape designs extensively. In these the stairs are entirely cut off from smoke and flame, because there are no openings directly into the buildings; the construction is secure and there is even protection from the weather. Unfortunately, these most excellent escapes have been very slow of adoption on the Pacific coast at least, because the property owner persists in looking upon the floor area involved as lost space and therefore unprofitable. With properly built stairway towers, the only use for an outside escape of the old pattern would be for the firemen’s use when all other exits were blocked by people coming down. Our cities and towns should require the approved tower escapes in all new buildings where the safety of human life is a serious factor, and allow no substitutes ; certainly not the popular kind of tower that has unprotected openings at each floor into the building, and will fill with smoke from some open door at the first outbreak of a fire.
Would that we could have good towers in all the old wooden joisted fire traps. If a man is disposed to alter one of these piles of dry kindling so as to install them, he should have every encouragement. But if we are to have only the outside ladder or stairway escapes, it should be remembered that by protecting the building from the rapid spread of fire, we are also adding to their safety. This is to be done by installing slowburning partitions to reduce the floor areas, and by enclosing elevator shafts, stairways and any other vertical openings. Excepting in basements, we do this in Seattle with double two-inch plank, which if well built, with broken joints, withstands even a very hot fire for a period a great deal longer than is necessary to allow everyone to escape from the building. In fact, we have not yet had one burned through in any ordinary fire. We have had a floor of wholesale drugs burn out entirely without any fire damage to similar stock above and below, although there was considerable loss by smoke and water, and the double plank enclosures that held the flames were scarcely charred and did not have to be renewed. Even with these safeguards against a fire rushing up from floor to floor, there still remains the hazard to people descending the outside ladders or stairways, by reason of the flames that may come from windows they pass. This is not so easily prevented, but may be greatly lessened by requiring wire glass at all such openings.
The Case of the Schools
While we are justified in making efforts to require the installation of satisfactory interior or tower stairs in any building, slow burning or otherwise, there is one class as to which we should be insistent, and that is the schools. Any school building over the height of two stories and basement should be torn down, if not of slowburning construction, with heating plant and manual training detached, and basement properly cut off. Otherwise. rooms and any other spaces should be sacrificed for good stairs and plenty of them. No dependence can be placed on outside escapes, especially as children must go out in their regular fire drills just as they would if in real danger, and there are too many risks in using them. Remove the causes of fire and keep them out; make it impossible for the fire that “cannot happen” to send smoke or flames up from below; install plenty of good stairs leading direct to out of doors. Then with proper drills, the outside escapes will be entirely unnecessary. Some one should be prosecuted when little children are compelled to walk down wet or snow-covered escapes once or twice a month. Unfortunately, a drill not under actual fire conditions is of very little account.
In conclusion, let me add, as evidence of how the movement for individual fire liability is gaining ground, that a jury in Minnesota not very many months ago awarded a woman $2,713 in damages because a defective fire escape forced her to jump twenty feet to the ground. This was during a fire at the Concord Flats, St. Paul.