Fire escape

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Fire escape in Greenwich Village Fire escape, West 10th Street, Greenwich Village, NYC.jpg
Fire escape in Greenwich Village

A fire escape is a special kind of emergency exit, usually mounted to the outside of a building or occasionally inside but separate from the main areas of the building. It provides a method of escape in the event of a fire or other emergency that makes the stairwells inside a building inaccessible. Fire escapes are most often found on multiple-story residential buildings, such as apartment buildings. At one time, they were a very important aspect of fire safety for all new construction in urban areas; more recently, however, they have fallen out of common use. This is due to the improved building codes incorporating fire detectors, technologically advanced fire fighting equipment, which includes better communications and the reach of fire fighting ladder trucks, and more importantly fire sprinklers. The international building codes and other authoritative agencies have incorporated fire sprinklers into multi-story buildings below 15 stories and not just skyscrapers.


A fire escape consists of a number of horizontal platforms, one at each story of a building, with ladders or stairs connecting them. The platform and stairs are usually open steel gratings, to prevent the build-up of ice, snow, and leaves. Railings are usually provided on each of the levels, but as fire escapes are designed for emergency use only, these railings often do not need to meet the same standards as railings in other contexts. The ladder from the lowest level of the fire escape to the ground may be fixed, but more commonly it swings down on a hinge or slides down along a track. The moveable designs allow occupants to safely reach the ground in the event of a fire but prevent people from accessing the fire escape from the ground at other times (such as to perpetrate a burglary or vandalism).

Lower part of a fire escape in New York. NY Fire escape 1.jpg
Lower part of a fire escape in New York.

Exit from the interior of a building to the fire escape may be provided by a fire exit door, but in most cases the only exit is through a window. When there is a door, it is often fitted with a fire alarm to prevent other uses of the fire escape, and to prevent unauthorized entry. As many fire escapes were built before the advent of electronic fire alarms, fire escapes in older buildings have often needed to be retrofitted with alarms for this purpose.

An alternate form of rapid-exit fire escape developed in the early 1900s was a long canvas tube suspended below a large funnel outside the window of a tall building. A person escaping the fire would slide down the interior of the tube, and could control the speed of descent by pushing outward on the tube walls with their arms and legs. This escape tube could be rapidly deployed from a window and hung down to street level, though it was large and bulky to store inside the building. [1]

A modern type of evacuation slide is the vertical spiral escape chute, which is a common means of evacuation for buildings and other structures.


One of the first fire escapes of any type was invented in 18th-century England. In 1784, Daniel Maseres, of England, invented a machine called a fire escape, which, being fastened to the window, would enable a person to descend to the street without injury.[ citation needed ] Abraham Wivell created an improved design, including an escape chute, after becoming superintendent of the "Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire." [2] Henry Vieregg patented the first US fire escape in Grand Island, NE in November 8, 1898 U.S. Patent 614,043 , serial number 681,672, which was designed for traveling businessmen.

Houghton's portable fire escape 1877 Houghton's Fire Escape 1877.jpg
Houghton's portable fire escape 1877

As building codes became more common in countries around the turn of the 20th century, fire safety became an important concern for new construction. Building owners were increasingly required to provide adequate escape routes, and at the time, fire escapes seemed the best option available. Not only could they be included in new construction at a low cost, but they could be very easily added to existing construction. As building codes evolved and more safety concerns addressed over subsequent editions, all construction above a certain number of stories was required to have a second means of egress, and external fire escapes were allowed as a retrofit option for existing buildings prior to the post-World War II period.

In the 1930s, the enclosed tubular chute type fire escape became widely accepted for schools, hospitals and other institution replaced the open iron ladder type. Its main advantage was people would have no reason to use it for anything other than a fire escape and patients could be slid down it in a fire on their bedding. [3]

Fire escape at the Krause Building on East 4th Street, Cleveland. Krause Bldg.jpg
Fire escape at the Krause Building on East 4th Street, Cleveland.

However, with the rise of urban sprawl in the mid-20th century, particularly the increase in public housing in cities in the United States and Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, certain problems with fire escapes became clear. In the poorer areas of several major American cities, such as New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, fire escapes were commonly used for everything but their intended purpose.

In the hot summer months, residents of mid-rise apartment buildings would sleep outside on the platforms of their fire escapes. Such a situation triggered the plot premise of Cornell Woolrich's 1947 short story, "The Boy Cried Murder", about a boy on a fire escape who one night witnesses a murder in a neighboring apartment; this story was filmed as the suspense thriller The Window (1949). The practice of sleeping on fire escapes can also be seen in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 movie Rear Window (also based on a Woolrich short story), as well as Weegee's photography of the Lower East Side). Diagonal shadows of fire escapes made them a constant motif in film noir, and the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet was transposed to a fire escape for the musical West Side Story .

The installation of window air conditioners in individual apartment units with fire escape-facing windows, often installed against code or local ordinance by residents, [4] which require the unit to be affixed to the window sash, also make a fire escape nearly useless in the summer months; the bulk and weight of an air conditioner unit shoved onto or over a fire escape in an emergency also creates additional danger for firefighters and evacuees.

Boston Herald American photographer Stanley Forman won a 1976 Pulitzer Prize for the photograph Fire Escape Collapse capturing two girls plunging from a faulty fire escape during a 1975 Boston fire, and the controversial image resulted in tougher fire safety codes in some jurisdictions.

High-rise fire escapes

As buildings are built taller and taller, new fire escape ideas have been gaining popularity. Elevators, though traditionally not used as fire escapes, are now being thought of as a possible evacuation for high-rises and skyscrapers. [5] Other alternate high-rise fire escape solutions include parachutes, external collapsible elevators, and slides. [6]


The use of a fire escape is dictated by various local, state, and agreed upon international building codes, such as standards provided by the International Code Council (ICC), the International Building Code (IBC), or the International Energy Conservation Code. Both the 2012 IBC and 2012 IRC require emergency escape and rescue openings for residential buildings of 4 floors or less, in sleeping rooms and basements with habitable space, for means of emergency egress. A fire escape can be a window, and if above the first floor with an approved ladder, or door that leads to a porch with ground access or a fire escape ladder. [7] Federal rules, such as those of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), have requirements that follow ICC codes. [8]

In literature

The fire escape is often regarded as one of the important symbols in the drama The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Its name is said to be "a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation". [9] At certain points in the drama, the fire-escape even accentuates the characteristics of the characters. Tom, the character most intertwined with the fire-escape, appears on it more often than others. In most of his appearances on the fire-escape, he is moving out of the apartment, a gesture showing his yearnings to venture into the outside world, escaping troubles at home. [10]

See also

Related Research Articles

Fire drill

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Stairs Construction designed to bridge a large vertical distance by dividing it into steps

A stairway, staircase, stairwell, flight of stairs, or simply stairs, is a construction designed to bridge a large vertical distance by dividing it into smaller vertical distances, called steps. Stairs may be straight, round, or may consist of two or more straight pieces connected at angles.

Our Lady of the Angels School fire 1958 school fire in Chicago, Illinois

On Monday, December 1, 1958, a fire broke out at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, Illinois, shortly before classes were to be dismissed for the day. The fire originated in the basement near the foot of a stairway. The elementary school was operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and had an enrollment of approximately 1600 students. A total of 92 pupils and 3 nuns ultimately died when smoke, heat, fire, and toxic gases cut off their normal means of egress through corridors and stairways. Many more were injured when they jumped from second-floor windows which, because the building had a raised basement, were nearly as high as a third floor would be on level ground.

Chute (gravity)

A chute is a vertical or inclined plane, channel, or passage through which objects are moved by means of gravity.

Iroquois Theatre fire A fire in a Chicago theater in 1903

The Iroquois Theatre fire occurred on December 30, 1903, at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, United States. It was the deadliest theater fire and the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history, resulting in at least 602 deaths.

Crash bar

A crash bar is a type of door opening mechanism which allows users to open a door by pushing a bar. While originally conceived as a way to prevent crowd crushing in an emergency, crash bars are now used as the primary door opening mechanism in many commercial buildings.

Emergency exit

An emergency exit in a structure is a special exit for emergencies such as a fire: the combined use of regular and special exits allows for faster evacuation, while it also provides an alternative if the route to the regular exit is blocked by fire, etc.

Emergency evacuation The urgent removal of people from an area of imminent or ongoing threat

Emergency evacuation is the urgent immediate egress or escape of people away from an area that contains an imminent threat, an ongoing threat or a hazard to lives or property.

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Fire alarm system

A fire alarm system has a number of devices working together to detect and warn people through visual and audio appliances when smoke, fire, carbon monoxide or other emergencies are present. These alarms may be activated automatically from smoke detectors, and heat detectors or may also be activated via manual fire alarm activation devices such as manual call points or pull stations. Alarms can be either motorized bells or wall mountable sounders or horns. They can also be speaker strobes which sound an alarm, followed by a voice evacuation message which warns people inside the building not to use the elevators. Fire alarm sounders can be set to certain frequencies and different tones including low, medium and high, depending on the country and manufacturer of the device. Most fire alarm systems in Europe sound like a siren with alternating frequencies. Fire alarm electronic devices are known as horns in the United States and Canada, and can be either continuous or set to different codes. Fire alarm warning devices can also be set to different volume levels.

Joelma Building

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One Meridian Plaza

One Meridian Plaza was a 38-story high-rise office building in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. The 492-foot (150-meter) tower was designed by Vincent Kling & Associates and completed in 1972. The building was demolished in 1999, as a result of damage of a fire that began on February 23, 1991. The fire began on the 22nd floor and raged out of control for hours. An investigation of the fire, led by the Office of the Fire Marshal of the City of Philadelphia with assistance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' (ATF) national investigative response team, determined the blaze started after linseed oil–soaked rags ignited. Philadelphia firefighters fought the blaze, but struggled due to a lack of power in the skyscraper and insufficient water pressure from the building's standpipes. Three firefighters died in the twelve-alarm fire after becoming disoriented by heavy smoke. Firefighting efforts inside One Meridian Plaza eventually were abandoned, due to fears the structure would collapse. The fire was only brought under control once it reached the 30th floor, which was one of the few floors that had automatic sprinklers installed. Ten sprinklers held back the fire until it started burning itself out and was finally brought under control almost a full day after it started. The blaze seriously damaged the building, destroying eight floors and damaging neighboring buildings.

Elevator Vertical transport device

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Abraham Wivell was a British portrait painter, writer and pioneer of fire protection, credited with inventing the first effective fire escape system. After working as a hairdresser, Wivell established himself as a society portrait painter before concentrating his efforts on fire safety measures.

Winecoff Hotel fire

The Winecoff Hotel fire of December 7, 1946, was the deadliest hotel fire in United States history, killing 119 hotel occupants, including the hotel's original owners. Located at 176 Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, United States, the Winecoff Hotel was advertised as "absolutely fireproof". While the hotel's steel structure was indeed protected against the effects of fire, the hotel's interior finishes were combustible, and the building's exit arrangements consisted of a single stairway serving all fifteen floors. All of the hotel's occupants above the fire's origin on the third floor were trapped, and the fire's survivors either were rescued from upper-story windows or jumped into nets held by firemen. The fire was notable for the number of victims who jumped to their deaths. A photograph of one survivor's fall won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. The fire – which followed the June 5, 1946, La Salle Hotel fire in Chicago, and the June 19, 1946, Canfield Hotel fire in Dubuque, Iowa – spurred significant changes in North American building codes, most significantly requiring multiple protected means of egress and self-closing fire-resistive doors for guest rooms in hotels.

Escape chute

An escape chute is a special kind of emergency exit, used where conventional fire escape stairways are impractical. The chute is a fabric tube installed near a special exit on an upper floor or roof of a building, or a tall structure. During use, the chute is deployed, and may be secured at the bottom by a fire fighting crew some distance out from the building. Once the tube is ready, escapees enter the tube and slide down to a lower level or the ground level.

Rubber room (bunker)

Rubber room is the nickname given to the emergency egress bunkers located 40 feet (12 m) beneath the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39; there is one below each of the two pads. Built in the 1960s for the Apollo program, and intended to provide a safe refuge for personnel on the launch pad in the event of an imminent explosion of the rocket, when a rapid egress of the pad is required and the normal evacuation methods would take too long. The bunker was designed to withstand the explosion of a fully fueled Saturn V rocket on the pad above, and could support up to 20 people for 24 hours.

<i>Donalds Fire Survival Plan</i>

Donald's Fire Survival Plan is an 11-minute Donald Duck educational cartoon released on May 5, 1966. The film was directed by Les Clark. This animated short focuses on fire safety in the home. The original release of this short included a live-action introduction from Walt Disney. It was re-released in August 1984 without the Walt Disney introduction.


  1. 1918 News article about an elastic canvas fire escape chute -- Keep a Fire-Escape Under the Window-Sill, Popular Science monthly, December 1918, page 47, Scanned by Google Books:
  2. Biography for Abraham Wivell
  3. "Fire Victims Slide Safely Down Tubular Chute" Popular Mechanics, February 1930
  4. "Air Conditioner Installation". New York City Department of Buildings . Retrieved 30 June 2014.
  5. Dunlap, David W. (2015-03-18). "Considering a Counterintuitive Path to Escape a Fire: The Elevator". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 2019-02-06.
  6. "High Rise Fires: Rethinking Exit Strategies". 2015-03-29.
  7. Architectural Testing: Exit requirements- Retrieved 2017-08-30
  8. HUD ruling- Retrieved 2017-08-30
  9. "The Glass Menagerie, scene 1".
  10. Lee, Zhi Yu. "Of Glass Menagerie & Fire-escape". ZewSays. Retrieved 12 September 2011.