What Is the Best Type of Fire Exit?
Advantages of Smoke-Proof Tower—Can Be Installed Within Building as Enclosed Stairway—Hazard of Ladder Escape
THAT the ordinary ladder and balcony open fire escape is not only a makeshift, but an exceedingly dangerous one at that, will hardly be denied. The following paper suggests a substitute that avoids all of the hazards to human life contained in the ladder escape and at the same lime acts as a fire retardant in preventing the rapid spread from one floor to another, when installed in the form of an enclosed stairway:
The subject of Exit Facilities might be considered in different ways. We will start with the Indian wigwam. When the Indian had his wigwam or the settler had his hut, exit facilities were everywhere. If anything happened inside the room all he had to do was to roll out under the canvas and he was out. As civilization progressed and ground became more valuable men started building structures higher rather than wider and longer. Thus arose the necessity of getting people into the building. That is the predominant idea of the theater man or the merchant, or perhaps everyone, except those interested in safety,—to get the people in first and then they don’t care particularly whether they can get out or not, because there is never going to be a fire. I have in mind the ladder fire escape. Why ask any human being other than an able-bodied fireman or circus acrobat to perform on that in zero weather with smoke and gas issuing from the building?
The Outside Ladder Fire Escape
The architect works very hard and spends many sleepless nights designing a building so it will be serviceable and useful, and so that the proportions will be right. He finds the height is out of proportion with the width and the ornamental scrolls over the doors will be out of place; but after it is all done he comes along and tacks on a tangled mass of iron in the shape of a ladder or stairway and calls it a fire escape. This is a notice to the whole world that there is danger in the building and that someone may have to use that exit to get out of the building in order to save his life or limbs.
A fire escape is good sometimes as a means of attack for the firemen. They can scramble up on the fire escape and put streams of water on the burning material, but in many cases it is no means of escape for the occupants.
When people build a building, regardless of the type of construction, and then fill the inside of the building with great quantities of combustible contents, with large undivided areas, fires will start in the most unlooked-for places and from the most mysterious causes, and spread with the rapidity that only men who have been trained to race away from fire know how great. With the above fact in mind something other than a ladder fire escape or stairway fire escape should be counted on as a means of egress from a burning building.
Hard to Convince Architects
But it is a most difficult thing to sell this idea to architects. They cannot get over the idea of building a building and tacking a fire escape on it. I will cite an example. In Chicago, on the northwest corner of Randolph and Madison Streets, is a twenty-two-story library building. They were not pressed for money because in 1891 Doctor Crerar died and left a fortune of about three million dollars to found a library. Today the resources available have increased very much. They built a most beautiful so-called fireproof building. When they got the twenty or twenty-two-story building constructed, after the architect wasted many hours of sleep and perhaps acquired grey hairs designing correct proportions, they tacked on two masses of iron bars called a fire escape. In lieu of this iron stairway fire escape, which will rust and require scrapings and paintings and thus stain the beautiful stonework on the front of the building, a new idea in exit facilities could have been used on the building. The additional expense would not have been great and cost was not troubling the builders.
The Philadelphia Smoke-Proof Stair Tower
This new idea is known as the Philadelphia smoke-proof stair tower. We will take the outside wall of a building; we will count a partition as the other outside wall; we would bring a brick wall to this column and a brick wall straight through. leave out the window and about half that space would be the Philadelphia smoke-proof tower. Thus your stairway is entirely surrounded with a twelve-inch brick or concrete wall. In order to get in that stairway you must leave the building. The wall comes out on the back porch, if you please, and then into your stair tower.
I have been able to sell that idea to several building contractors and architects up north. The enclosed stair tower is not required by law. I would have a difficult time selling it to the law makers. But we have better than a fire escape in the Philadelphia smoke-proof stair tower. Regardless of what happens within the building, that stairway is one hundred per cent efficient as a means of escape for the occupants above. Once off of one floor you will descend through the stairway without leaving the stair tower until discharged into the alley or street. That sort of a stairway can be completely worked out and incorporated within the original walls of the building.
Some Examples of Fire with Loss of Life
We have had many fires in which there was a loss of life. I know the experience of this year alone, in three fires, one in which there were nine lives lost in a four-story building having two flats on the first floor, two flats on the second floor, two flats on the third floor and two flats on the fourth floor, with one open stairway and no combustible contents in the building other than the furniture with which the people carried on their domestic avocation. Nothing was in the corridors perhaps but a baby carriage. The stairway was of wood, the banister was wood, there was a rug on the stairs and corridors. If a fire starts on the first floor it immediately transforms the stairway into a roaring mass of flames and before the fire department is there the stairway has burned away and fallen into the base ment. There was no fire in the basement, but the stairway collapsed and the people on the upper floors never had a chance to leave their rooms to get in the corridor.
“We have better than a fire escape in the Philadelphia smoke-proof stair tower. Regardless of what happens within the building, that stairway is one hundred per cent efficient as means of an attack for the fire department and one hundred per cent efficient as a means of escape for the occupants above. Once off of one floor you will descend through the stairway without leaving the stair tower until discharged into the alley or street.”
Wc had a case in the hospital for the blind in Chicago. One man lost his life who had had an operation per formed on his eyes the previous day. The reason only one man lost his life was because there was only one man sleeping in the building. The whole side of the building was covered with an iron platform with access to a very fine stairway fire escape. What was the cause of that loss of life? The same old open stairway idea. The stairway started at the basement, with no inclosure whatsoever, and within 50 feet of that hospital were two companies of firemen with the finest kind of equipment, a pumper costing $16,000, an 85-foot aerial ladder, and twenty as fine men as you can wish to see at any fire. No one knew the fire started, but in the twinkle of an eye it started in the basement, and went to the open stairway and traveled upward, and the loss of life occurred. The inside stairway was 48 inches wide. Every window on one side of the building had access to a platform fire escape and yet that fire came up and snuffed out the life of the jaior blind man. The fire department made a good response and put out the fire, but could not save the life.
In buildings of that kind we have taken it upon ourselves to try to sell the idea of enclosing the stairway so it will lie not only an exit facility when the emergency arises, but that the fire will be confined to the floor where it starts for a little while at least.
There Can be Fires with Fire-proof Construction
Fire-proof construction does not mean safety from fre, that there cannot be a fire if the building contains combustible contents, and the building does not have to be heavily loaded with combustible contents either. Our building code is based on records of fires and loss of life, running up into the hundreds, especially among factory workers, girls and women; yet we have not been able to sell the law makers in our city the necessity of enclosing stairways.
As a sample of what an enclosed stairway accomplished, let me cite the following: The Burlington building is a fine type of fire-proof or fire-resistive construction. By the use of that term 1 do not mean you cannot have a fire, but it is as fine a type of building as can be found anywhere. It is superior to the requirements of the city code and I believe to the National Board code on building construction. Why is it superior? Because all stairs and elevator shafts are enclosed in walls and masonry and all doors are metal doors. It was used as an office building. It had exterior windows fronting on the east and north streets. The windows were of ordinary wood sash and glass. The exposure from the neighboring fire was not severe, because the street on the east was 88 feet wide and for a distance of 110 feet the building was exposed by a two-story building and only by a six-story building for a distance of about 61) feet. Thus its total icngth was 170 feet, for 110 feet it was exposed by a two-story building and for 60 feet it was exposed by a six-story building, across an 88-foot street. The wind was blowing from that direction. Had the Burlington building been subjected to a severe exposure and its stairs and elevator shaft not been enclosed in masonry, I fear there would have been floors falling in that structure.
The fire department entered and used the stairs from the ground up. The standpipe equipment was not in the stairway as it is now. We learned something at that fire, namely to have all standpipes in the stair towers. The fire department is never called when things go as they should. When the finest type of building was being consumed by fire, then the fire department was called. Did they put the fire out ? No. They were fortunate to stop the fire in the building. There were defects not observed before the fire. When the firemen did get to the open floor, they found the standpipe was inside a cabinet and the hose connection was so close to the ceiling it could not be reached. When they did get the hose on the standpipe the opening on the standpipe went to the side of the hose cabinet, which caused the hose to kink and little water would flow through the hose. The boys then filled the cuspidors with water and threw the water on the burning window sash, trying to prevent the fire from entering.
Those are the facilities given the fire department to fight the fire that never was supposed to happen in the Burlington Building. There are many other exposures in other cities far greater than the exposures around the Burlington building.
Then there is the matter of elevators being considered as a means of exit. Not from our experience! They had a fire pump in the Burlington building, which our men state did not operate. It is alleged that when the fire started the engineer had gone for a sandwich. Perhaps the elevator operators will go to eat when the fire starts, so you cannot count on the elevators.
Lessons of the Dunning Fire
I hey had a fire at the Dunning institution and a little nurse girl told a world of facts concerning it. This little nurse girl said three things. This was a one-story frame building. It covered a large area and was an L-shaped building and over it all an attic. They did not have even a pine partition for a fire stop. Exit facilities in a one-story building? They could have stepped from the window out on the ground. The doors opened inward. All exit doors should open outward. The little girl said this: “No one thought it would come so fast.” Next she said, “The lights went out. The lights always go out. The next thing she said, “The place filled with smoke and gas.” There were the first three things; no one thought it would come so fast; next, the lights went out and finally the place filled with smoke and heat. Twenty-four people lost their lives and they were not helpless people either, but in full possession of all their mental faculties. They were epileptics, that’s true, but in possession of all faculties except during a period of mental stress.
In the Iroquois fire they tell you the people died because exit doors were locked, but if other things were done that should have been done, the exit doors could have been locked and the people could have watched the material on the stage burn. The Iroquois theater did not burn, the contents on the stage of the theater burned and the heat, the smoke and the gas going out into the auditorium did the damage. Many people never left their seat? at all. What difference did exit facilities make to those people? Loss of life in a theater has always occurred where up to fifteen feet of open space around the building was provided. When the fire starts the probability is it is not going to give the occupants of the building a chance to get to the exit space.
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What Is the Best Type of Fire Exit?
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Proptr Exits for Public Places
In the inspection of places of public assembly it is not unusual to find exits locked or obstructed. When we happen to see a few people standing in the aisles it is not considered a great hazard. but when we see doors put in as means of egress barred and bolted or loose obstacles in the aisles or passageways for people to trip on, we see that it is rectified immediately.
In our city it is provided by city ordinance exits must be kept free and no one shall be permitted to stand there, but before the exit facilities come, take the other steps to eliminate the possible chance of a fire by having the known causes of fire safeguarded. Eliminate from the theater stage the chance for the fire to start by having the scenery fireproofed before it is used. Provide a stage vent to permit the immediate escape of smoke and gas. Provide a steel curtain to separate the auditorium from the stage. Provide automatic sprinklers and give the people a chance to use the exit facilities provided by the architect.
We do not always do things right in a big city. Size sometimes is our only claim to fame. Many small towns have good ideas in their fire departments that could be profitably adopted by the larger cities.
(Front a paper read before the Illinois is Short Course in Fire Prevention.)
MR. GIBSON, Champaign—I would like to ask your opinion of the horizontal fire escapes?
MR. Plant-—I would like to have you qualify it, your question. Where does it lead to?
MR. Gibson—To another building.
MR. Plant—Through another building?
MR. Gibson—Simply through a brick wall.
MR. Plant—Fine. A horizontal exit is always to be preferred to a vertical exit. Especially is that true of a school or hospital where the occupants can be carried or marched horizontally out of danger.
MR. Gibson—A party wall balcony for an escape. One window on one side of the wall, including a window on the other side of the wall.
MR. Plant—In such as a home for the aged, incurables or children, a horizontal exit is ideal. In the hospitals, of which we have so many three, four and five story buildings with open stairways, which themselves have enough combustible material to create sufficient gas so that everybody will be burned to death and each patient takes at least two firemen to get him out and most fire departments are undermanned, horizontal escapes help greatly. If the occupants have to be lowered vertically, it is a big problem. It is sometimes found that the doors leading to the fire escape are so narrow they will not admit the passage of a bed. This creates additional dangers.
MR. Rogers—I would like to ask your opinion of this new tubular fire escape, not the spiral, but the straight tube, about a 45-degree angle.
MR. Plant—Yes, providing you can get one to every window in the institution.
MR. ROGERS-I mean for schools particularly.
MR. Plant—No. I don’t think we should put up a building so hazardous and compel children to go to school in a fire trap building. That would mean they would have to exit very fast from the building. You don’t need them on fire-proof two story buildings. Provide them with the Philadelphia smoke tower.
MR. Rogers—That’s all right on buildings to be erected, but what about 90 per cent of the public schools not of that type of construction; you arc compelled to use them.
MR. Plant—If the large .department stores in Chicago and elsewhere and factories can see their way clear to protect sausage, socks, underwear, etc., by installing an automatic sprinkler system, aren’t lives of school children worth as much ?
MR. ROGERS-I am asking your opinion of the building, not that type of construction.
MR. Plant—They should not have a school building of that kind.
MR. Rogers—But you have got them all over the country. Chicago is full of them.
MR. Plant—They should not permit school children to be housed in a school building of that kind. Here is a fire escape on a building, notice to the world there is danger in the building. You compel them to go to school in a fire-trap building. Is it not possible to get a sprinkler system in a school building? The merchant protects his shirts and underwear, etc., with a sprinkler system. It is highly inconsistent. Put a fire escape on the school that is a fair fire hazard, but where human life is at stake in a fire-trap building they should go beyond the mark and put in not alone exit facilities, but sprinklers also. The time to fight a fire is when you are building and you will not need so many fire escapes. I have seen many one story and a half cottages with only one stairway to the second floor. If a fire starts in the basement somebody is going to be out of luck. Why not put an enclosure on that stairway? The cost is not much. I have seen firemen living in such a home. Firemen are away from home 24 or 48 hours at a time. Some firemen are quite difficult to sell fire prevention to. It strikes home at times. Many fires in one and one-half story cottages spread up the stairway. There is enough combustible material there to furnish food for a fire and a human being’s life is very easily extinguished by heat and smoke. Everyone should have two means of escape. The chances of fire being in two places at once are rather remote. In order to get to a fire escape, if you have to go through a room the door to the room should have a full glass panel.