Fire escapes can be a valuable asset at structure fires. Unsafe operations by firefighters and poor or faulty condition of assemblies can turn an asset into a liability.

(Photo by Al Trojanowia.)



“The chief told us to ‘take up,’” the captain says to the firefighters, “but before we go, let’s secure the building. There are a couple of broken windows that have to be cleared of glass shards, the roof scuttle cover we vented must be put back, and we have to raise and reset the fire escape drop ladder.”

“I’ll get the drop ladder,” one of the firefighters says, and he climbs out of the window of the two-story brick row house. Standing on the lowest balcony of the fire escape, the firefighter temporarily hangs his pike pole over the railing. With both hands free, he reaches down, grabs the metal rung of the vertical drop ladder resting on the sidewalk, and pulls it upward. Hand under hand, he pulls up each rung waist-high. When the ladder is all the way up the firefighter holds the heavy iron ladder with one hand and swings the pendulum hook under the nearest drop ladder rung to secure it with the other hand.

Instead of reentering the window of the burned-out apartment and walking down the stairway to the apparatus, the firefighter decides to take a shortcut. He drops his tool to the ground and climbs over the fire escape railing and onto the raised drop ladder.

I’ll climb down the iron ladder as far as it goes, hang from the last rung, and jump down the rest of the way, he thinks to himself.

When the full weight of his body is on the ladder and the firefighter starts to climb down, the iron rung holding the pendulum hook breaks, causing the hook to release the drop ladder. T he ladder with the firefighter standing on it shoots straight downward, crashing into the sidewalk. The sudden stop knocks the firefighter backward on the ground, flat on his back. Two firefighters run over to help him up. Writhing in pain on the sidewalk, the firefighter cries out, “My feet! My feet! I’m really hurt! Don’t try to pick me up! Get an ambulance!”

The next day, word spread quickly through the firehouse about the fire escape drop ladder giving way with the firefighter on it—all the bones in his feet were broken.


Match the fire escape danger with its corresponding safety precaution.

Fire Escape Danger

Step of fire escape stairway ( )

  1. Gooseneck ladder ( )
  2. Counterbalance stairway ( )
  3. Drop ladder out of track ( )
  4. Firefighters overloading
  5. balcony ( )
  6. Falling objects ( )
  7. Angle of climb ( )
  8. Aerial devices ( )
  9. Climbing down raised drop ladder ( )

Safety Precaution

  • Never do it.
  • Expect it to collapse.
  • Raise before retracting.
  • Shake before using.
  • Continuous grip.
  • Use a portable ladder.
  • Don’t look up.
  • Stand beneath fire escape.
  • Not more than three firefighters.

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At the next fire you respond to, the chief could order you to stretch a hoseline up a fire escape. Your community may not have buildings with fire escapes; however, an adjoining town with which your fire department has a mutual-aid agreement could have many old, rusted fire escapes hidden from view in backyards and side alleys.

Fire escapes have valuable firefighting advantages besides their original purpose of providing a secondary exit for the occupants of a multistory building. Firefighters can use a fire escape as a means of access to open a window instead of forcing a door or as a platform from which to vent a window in the path of an advancing interior hoseline attack. They can launch a search or rescue mission from a fire escape or use it to make a hoseline advance when the interior attack fails. There are dangers associated with fire escapes, but there also are safe operating procedures you can use to minimize the danger.


In the suburbs and some rural communities fire escapes are attached to 2 1/2-story dwellings. When an attic is occupied, a fire escape is often attached on the outside of the structure near the attic window to provide a second exit from the attic. Multistory public schools, nursing homes, movie theaters, hotels, and apartment houses also have fire escapes.

There are three types of fire escapes; some are more dangerous than others. The exterior screened stairway is the safest, followed by the party balcony and the standard fire escape, which is the most hazardous because of its mechanical parts and narrow, high-pitched stairway.

Exterior screened stairway. This fire escape is enclosed by a shoulderhigh metal screen or railing. The stairway is similar to an interior stairs except that it is made of metal and is outside the building. The width and angle are the same as those of a building stairway—two people can descend side by side. The step rise and tread are the same as those of a stair. The fire escape may have a metal covering over the top of it to protect users from rain or snow. The most important feature is that access from the lowest balcony to the street is by way of a permanent metal stairway— there are no mechanical ladders or counterbalance stairways supported by cables and heavy metal weights that must be activated, as is the case with standard fire escapes.

The exterior screened stairs is the safest of fire escape assemblies.the standard fire escape.the party balcony fire escape.

(These and following photos by author.)

The party balcony. Unlike the other types, the party balcony has no stairs or ladders connecting the fire escape balconies serving each floor; there is no access to balconies above or below or to the street. This is strictly a horizontal emergency exit on the outside of the building; it provides an escape route by way of the adjoining occupancy. A person fleeing a fire opens a door or window, climbs out onto the outside party balcony, walks several feet to the adjoining occupancy, and enters it through a door or window. The real protection it provides is the unpierced fire division between the two adjoining occupancies.

Standard fire escape. This is the most common type of fire escape found on residential buildings. It is a series of metal balconies interconnected by a narrow stairway or ladders. The top balcony may have a gooseneck ladder leading to the roof of the building, and the lowest balcony has a sliding drop ladder or a counterbalance stairs providing access to street level. There may be a vertical ladder connecting balconies on this type of fire escape or a narrow stairway at a steep 60or 75-degree angle that only one person can use at a time. The step has a rise greater than that of a normal interior stair and a tread smaller than that of a stairway. There may be only one knee-high thin bar as a handrail along the stairway.

A broken step on the fire escape assembly can cause serious injury.

The balcony is enclosed only by a waist-high railing.


The fire escapes found on most old buildings are very different from the sturdy, freshly painted fire escapes found on drill towers of training centers. Some have been attached to walls of buildings for half a century or more and have become extremely dangerous to use because of neglect or lack of maintenance. The older or more corroded a fire escape, the more dangerous it is. A rusted standard fire escape on the side of a 50-year-old abandoned building is the most hazardous fire escape a firefighter can encounter. If possible, use a fire department aerial or ground ladder instead.

The following are some hazards and safe operating procedures for climbing or operating on fire escapes during fires or emergencies.

Climbing. When a firefighter climbs up or down a weakened fire escape, the impact of his body weight pounding on a corroded metal step can cause the step to collapse suddenly and cause him to fall. The firefighter may tumble down the fire escape stairs holding sharp tools, topple over the fire escape railing and fall to the ground below, or get his leg caught between the steps and break a kneecap.

The most common injury to firefighters on fire escapes is caused by step collapse. Corrosion causes the weakening of the connection between the step and the side stringer to which it is attached. This small space between the step and the stringer where the connecting bolt or weld is located is inaccessible to such normal maintenance procedures as scraping and painting. In many instances visual inspection does not detect this weakness.

To protect yourself from step failure while operating on a fire escape, be aware of the danger at all times and climb each step as if it were about to collapse. Continuously grip some portion of the fire escape with your hand; if the step fails, this will prevent you from falling. Step down on each step smoothly, if possible—do not stamp your foot down as you climb or descend. Place one foot on the step above and apply pressure to it before putting your full weight on it. Finally, place your foot close to the side of the fire escape step. This causes less deflection of the metal step, thus reducing the stress on the connections between the tread and stringer.

If you discover one broken step on a fire escape, it is an indication that the other steps are weak and may collapse beneath you. If you suspect that a step may collapse, descend the fire escape backward, facing the stairs. If a step suddenly breaks, you will fall into the stair, not outward and possibly over the balcony railing.

Gooseneck ladders. Some standard fire escapes on flat-roof buildings have vertical ladders that extend from the top-floor balcony to the roof level. The top of the vertical ladder is curved as it extends over the roof, thus the name gooseneck ladder. This ladder is attached to the exterior wall of the building and the roof deck. Sometimes these connections are loose, missing, or corroded and the ladder moves out from the building during climbing. This sudden movement could cause the firefighter to lose his grip and fall backward off the fire escape into the backyard.

To protect yourself from this danger, before climbing a fire escape gooseneck ladder test the fastening by pulling it away from the wall or roof deck to which it is attached. If it does not budge or pull away from the wall, climb it carefully; if it does pull away, do not climb it. Notify your officer in command so that he may warn other firefighters of this hazard.

Make certain that gooseneck ladders to and from roofs are secure before using.

Counterbalance stairways. Found on standard fire escapes, counterbalance stairways are designed to provide access between the lowest fire escape balcony and the street level. They are extremely dangerous to operate. Some of these heavy metal structures have not been tested or operated for many years and can collapse when activated. Supported on a pivot, these stairways are balanced in a horizontal position by heavy, castiron counterbalancing weights. Several hundred pounds of metal are either attached to one end of the stairway or held up by a pulley and steel cable against the side of the building.

A simple bar prevents the ladder from descending; moving it from beneath the stairway activates the counterbalance. A firefighter with a pike pole can do this from street level or a person using the fire escape can do it manually from the balcony. However, when the counterbalance stairway starts to descend and the cast-iron balancing weights start to rise, watch out; Any moving part of the fire escape can collapse and strike a person standing in the vicinity. There have been incidents in which the entire metal stairway has collapsed on the sidewalk; the heavy metal weights holding up the fire escape have fallen off the counterbalance ladder; the cables holding the cast-iron weight have snapped, becoming a deadly whip; and the entire pulley assembly holding the cable and weights attached to the side of the building has pulled away from the building wall and dropped to the street.

When arriving at a fire where people are awaiting rescue on the lowest balcony of a standard fire escape with a counterbalance stairway, use a department ladder instead of the counterbalance stairway. Climb up the ladder, calm the people down, and, if possible, take them inside the secondfloor window and down the interior stairs. This is safer for everyone involved.

Fire escape drop ladders. Standard fire escapes sometimes have vertical sliding drop ladders, held in place on the lowest balcony by a pendulum hook. The hook holding the ladder in place is released when a firefighter standing on the sidewalk places the hook of his pike pole beneath the bottom rung of the drop ladder and raises it several inches. The pendulum hook swings away and the weight of the ladder is transferred to the firefighter’s pike pole. The ladder drops straight down as the firefighter quickly removes the hook end of the pike pole from beneath the rungs.

Counterbalance stairways also can present many hazards if deteriorated due to lack of maintenance.Vertical drop or sliding ladders can be a nightmare. Poor maintenance or resetting practices can cause failure of the assembly. Here the channel is not stored into the guide.

If the drop ladder is not reset properly after its last use and is not encased in its sliding tracks or guides, when it is released it can fall away from the fire escape and strike the firefighter operating it. For this reason, a firefighter lowering a drop ladder should stand beneath the fire escape balcony. If the drop ladder falls out of the tracks, the firefighter will be protected.

Firefighters should never climb down a raised drop ladder. The iron rung securing the pendulum could break under the firefighter’s weight if it’s corroded or mechanically flawed. Climbing down the raised drop ladder and jumping to the ground is a tempting shortcut that must be resisted— the firefighter risks broken bones in doing so.

Overloading afire escape balcony. There is a limit to the weight a fire escape balcony or stairway can support. On many old fire escapes, corroded by the weather and weakened by lack of maintenance, the loadcarrying capability has been dangerously reduced.

During a .fire operation firefighters, in their eagerness to extinguish a fire with a hoseline stretched up a fire escape, sometimes crowd up on the fire escape balcony outside the room on fire. Some foreground photographs show six or seven firefighters attempting to move into a flaming window behind a hoseline on a fire escape balcony. This is an extremely dangerous condition. The overloaded fire escape could suddenly pull away from the building, collapsing the balcony and firefighters to the street below.

The officer in charge should limit the number of firefighters working on a fire escape balcony or stairway during an operation. When crowding occurs, some firefighters should be ordered to stand by on a lower balcony or directed inside a window. There should not be more than three firefighters on one fire escape balcony or stairway between balconies. The total weight of three firefighters, each weighing 200 pounds, carrying 50 pounds of breathing apparatus and fire gear, and advancing 100 feet of charged 2‘/>-inch hose, is one-half ton.

Falling objects. When cleaning his fire gear back in quarters after operating on a fire escape during a serious fire, a firefighter may find small pieces of broken glass or burned wood in the pockets of his turnout coat or hardened splatters of solder or tar on his helmet or coat. Firefighters working on the fire escape below the fire are in a dangerous area—the perimeter of the burning building. Falling objects such as broken glass, small pieces of burning wood, dripping hot metal solder, molten tar, and even bricks from a parapet wall can rain down the side of the burning building from the burning cornice and operations above. The metal grillwork of the fire escape allows small objects to fall through it, which can strike the firefighter.

To protect yourself from such falling objects, don’t look up, don’t reach over the edge of the fire escape unless it is necessary—stay beneath the balcony above you, wear all protective clothing including gloves, and stay close to the building.

Debris and broken glass on fire escape landings can cause serious injuries to firefighters.

Angle of fire escape ladder. A hidden danger in a standard fire escape is the angle of its stairway and ladders. The climbing angles of a gooseneck ladder, drop ladder, and intermediate stair between fire escape balconies are much greater than that of a normal building stairway. To compensate for this, exercise greater caution when ascending or descending a fire escape.

A typical stairway in a building is at a 30or 45-degree angle from the horizontal floor level. A standard fire escape stairway is at a 60or 75degree angle from the horizontal floor level; the gooseneck and drop ladder are straight up at a 90-degree angle.

The SCBA on a firefighter’s back changes his center of gravity—there is actually a constant force pulling the firefighter backward. He must be conscious of this force at all times during the climb up or down a 90-degreeangle gooseneck or drop ladder. A momentary release of grip when climbing hand over hand on the rungs of a fire escape drop ladder will cause the firefighter to fall backward.

Walking down a fire escape stairway at a 75-degree angle is not the same as walking down an interior enclosed 45-degree-angle stairway inside a building: The rise of the fire escape step is greater and the width of the step tread is narrower. This difference changes the body motion required to climb and descend the fire escape. Also, there is less horizontal space on the fire escape stairway to maintain balance. You must keep a continuous grip on some portion of the ladder or stairway of a fire escape. Carrying tools or hose, icy or wet conditions, and the presence of glass shards can make operating on a fire escape and maintaining your balance more difficult during a fire.

Aerial ladders and platforms. Aerial equipment has saved more lives— of civilians and firefighters—than any other advance in firefighting technology. However, if an aerial ladder or platform is not used properly, it can become a deadly piece of heavy equipment.

A moving aerial ladder or tower ladder boom can collapse a fire escape. If the tip of an aerial ladder being lowered near a fire escape slams down onto the railing, it can collapse the entire fire escape balcony. Aerial platforms positioned at parapet wall and roof levels suddenly retracted can pull walls down, dumping tons of brick on top of fire escapes. If a tower ladder bumper pad at the underside of the bucket hooks onto a fire escape railing, it can pull the fire escape off the front of the building when the boom is moved away from the building.

Treat aerial ladders and platforms as you would cranes and heavy construction equipment; consider firefighters who operate aerial devices “operating engineers” who position cranes and large construction equipment—and give them special training.

Aerial ladders and tower ladders can kill firefighters when used improperly. In addition to collapsing fire escapes, they have knocked down chimneys, collapsed walls, crushed parked automobiles, knocked down utility poles, collapsed themselves when overextended at low angles, and catapulted firefighters off the tips of sudden-moving aerials.

Firefighters operating aerial devices at fires should use extreme caution at all times, but especially near a fire escape. Place the tip of the aerial ladder against the building instead of the fragile fire escape. When operating above a fire escape or parapet wall, before retracting the aerial ladder or platform first raise it up sufficiently to clear it from the railing or coping stone below, and then retract or move it horizontally.

Do not be discouraged from using fire escapes during a fire operation if they can assist in an attack. Fire escapes have many advantages during a fire: They allow occupants to escape, on multistory buildings they provide a second way to advance a hoseline to an upper floor, they provide quick access to a less-damaging type of forcible entry through a window, they provide an outside platform for venting smoke and heat through a window for a hoseline advance, and they provide an alternate avenue to search for and make rescues of trapped victims.

Keep in mind, however, that climbing, descending, or operating on a fire escape has its risks; yet, as with all firefighting dangers, you can reduce those risks significantly by following the appropriate safety precautions.

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