Near miss videos show dangers of fire escapes

Ubiquitous in cities with older buildings, exterior fire escapes are often accidents waiting to happen

How could something like a fire escape that is supposed to save lives put firefighters in danger? It's pretty easy, in fact, and most often it boils down to poor maintenance or construction of the stair and poor size-up by the firefighters.

There are quite a few different types of fire escape stair systems, which firefighters may use them for rescue and removal, forcible entry, advancing a hose line, and ventilation.

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Retired FDNY Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn wrote in his 2004 newsletter that you will see many variations of fire escape stair systems, but most can be classified into "exterior screened stairways, party balconies, and standard fire escapes with mechanical street ladders."

The 'safest' of them
The exterior screened stairway is often considered the safest of the exterior fire escapes. These have a more standard stair with handrails and are wide enough to accommodate two people. It will look very similar to an interior stair and will not have the drop-down ladder for access.

This "comfortable" stair can give firefighters a false sense of security. Remember that these stairs are built of metal, which corrodes and rusts. This rust and corrosion will often attack the fasteners that attach the structure to the building, causing fastener failure.

There are reports showing firefighter injuries as a result of step failure as well. A good course of action when using these systems is to move smoothly, always have one hand on the rail, and try to not put full body weight down with each step. The more you can limit your impact on the stair the chance for failure decreases.

No place to go
The next type of escape is the party balcony type. The most obvious characteristic of this system is its lack of a stairs or ladders to the ground floor. Once an occupant exits to the balcony, there is no option of movement up or down the building exterior; the only potential move is to the adjacent apartment.

In many cases the windows are not open in the adjacent apartment, trapping the occupants on the balcony. If you are on the scene of an apartment fire with a balcony-type escape, consider the danger of balcony failure due to occupant overloading and limited options for the occupants to escape to safety.

Rescue operations should be expedited and great care should be taken around the balcony and supports.

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The most common fire escape
The standard fire escape is the most common type of exterior egress system. This fire escape is plagued with many design hazards that are often exaggerated by deterioration, corrosion and after-market alterations.

This fare is often identified by a narrow gooseneck at the top and a drop down ladder at ground level. Unlike the exterior-screen type, this is a steep, narrow ladder-like system. If there is a handrail, it is often narrow.

The rise-to-run ratio is often between 60 to 75 degrees with very narrow treads. It is safe to assume that if you are rescuing an occupant you should plan to make entry below and use the interior stair. Trying to navigate the fire escape with a victim will increase your odds of accident and injury.

Like the exterior screen stairway, step collapse is common. Visually inspect the system and attachments to the building for signs of failure, corrosion and deterioration. Another hazard to consider with this system is the drop down ladder or counterbalance stairway.

These are rarely tested or inspected after installation. This is often put into place by a firefighter with a pike pole from below or a firefighters weight from above.

The components of the counterbalance stair are quite dangerous. The stair itself can be fatal with its weight alone. The cable system can break free under load and cause traumatic injury to anyone in the area. In some cases the counterbalance stair has failed and caused the entire fire escape system to be pulled off the building.

It is in your best interest to trade the counterbalance stair for a ground ladder.

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Remember, when sizing up try to assess the condition of any escape system that may be present. In many cases the fire escape may be the worst path to take. If you find yourself on one of these systems be on the lookout for:

  • Missing or broken steps, rails or components
  • Deterioration, corrosion or failure
  • Issues with attachments or connections to building
  • Test gooseneck, rail, ladder before using
  • Consider alternates if issues are present
  • Drop down or counter balance type mechanism dangers
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