Fire Escapes

  By Brian Butler

Fire escapes have saved many lives over the past 100 years. After all, they were constructed on residential and commercial properties as an escape route for occupants fleeing fire. But fire escapes have become more dangerous nowadays as a result of age, neglect and corrosion. Some fire escapes are still in good condition and many require annual inspections. Most fire escapes are constructed of iron or steel and range from 35 to over 100 years old. They are common in older residential, public assembly and commercial structures, especially taxpayers and multi-families. 

Many fire departments in large urban areas still use fire escapes for entry, rescue, ventilation, portable standpipe operations and egress. Due to safety concerns, some fire departments prohibit members from using fire escapes altogether, but that doesn't mean firefighters should no longer be familiar with them.

For departments that are discouraged from using fire escapes, familiarization with them usually takes a back seat when it comes to training. Fire departments having an SOG/SOP on prohibiting the use of fire escapes does not mean their members shouldn't have some basic knowledge on identifying the types of fire escapes and how to safely operate release ladders. 

There are three major types of fire escapes: 

* Standard with drop ladders, gooseneck ladders and counterbalance stairways.

* Exterior screened stairways are the safest, usually with a wide screened exterior stairway that goes from top floor to street.

* Party balconies have no stairway or ladder. It's used as a horizontal escape route from one apartment to an adjacent one.

In urban areas, many fire escapes have been altered in recent years due to theft and break-ins, or because they're too dangerous and unsafe. Some have become deteriorating liabilities. Often you will find the drop ladder assembly secured to the balcony with chains, bike locks, coat hangers and even bungee cords. This is done to prevent an unsafe drop ladder from falling onto pedestrians below on the sidewalk, or to prevent criminals from accessing upper floor apartments and businesses from the street. The counterbalance stairway was designed to be elevated from the street for that reason.

Always check for damage, alterations, locking devices, corrosion, and loose masonry at connection points when using or working near fire escapes

Standard Fire Escape


Standard fire escapes with counterbalance stairs or drop ladders are the most common. 

Counterbalanced stairs usually involve hundreds of pounds of weights, a cable, and sometimes a pulley system. These are extremely dangerous as there are several moving parts that can fail. If possible, use a ground ladder over lowering a counterbalance system. If there's no other option, the occupants or firefighters can remove the access bar to allow the stairway to lower when weight applied, or firefighter with pike pole/hook pulling down on it. 

The drop ladder (pictured above) is the most common in residential properties and will also have a gooseneck ladder for access to the roof in MFD's. It's usually fixed to the lowest balcony landing and held suspended off the ground by a metal hook attached to a hinge on the balcony or wall above. To lower the drop ladder, lift it off the hook with a pike pole and lower it to the ground. Stand underneath the balcony when lowering for safety in case the ladder is off it's track or the hinge fails. Keep the weight of drop ladder on the hook until lowered.


Fire Escapes

CounterbalanceFire Escape


Standard fire escape with counterbalance stairs are designed to lower as the occupants apply weight to them. The counterweights on these fire escapes can weight up to 500 lbs  making them dangerous for firemen working below. Never stand directly underneath when pulling down the stairs with a tool. The pulley system with cable, weights and hinge could snap from corrosion, crashing down causing serious injuries to firemen 

Exterior Stairway Fire Escape


Exterior stairway fire escapes are common in schools. The hazards are the weakened corroded steps collapsing under the weight of a fireman. Climb these steps smoothly, don't stomp down on the tread and use the railing while sounding the step above before applying all your weight. 

Party Balcony Fire Escape


 Party balcony fire escapes are used to escape into an adjacent apartment They can be turned into storage areas for bikes, plants and or garbage. Be aware of wires, hazards and obstructions, such as window unit air conditioners. Don't place ground ladders against the balcony, use the wall.

Residential Standard Fire Escape


Residential standard fire escape servicing the 2nd and 3rd floor windows to the apartment. 

Screened Exterior Escape


Screened Exterior Fire Escape: Would you trust walking down this fire escape in this old building? Fire preplans (not load tests or inspections, unless the fire department is assigned that duty) in these buildings should include the fire escapes to identify their stability. Some are actually kept up to code and in very good condition, others are corroded and unsafe.

Standard Fire Escape


In old occupied buildings with unsafe fire escapes, access to them should be closed off. Locate these types of fire escapes in your response area. Occupants loading an unsafe fire escape during a fire that's out of the reach of an aerial will be their only option.

Photo by CDC NIOSH

Chicago LODD Fireman killed falling from this gooseneck ladder. To check the stability of these ladders, try pulling it from the building. Remember to use three points of contact when climbing. 


FDNY Black Sunday LODD


Photo by CDC NIOSH: Picture above of the tragic Black Sunday fire location in the Bronx N.Y. 

Even if corroded 50 year old fire escapes were present under these windows, their deaths and injuries could have been prevented. Unfortunately, the existing fire escapes didn't service those particular apartment windows and were just out of reach for the trapped firemen; they had to jump.

Black Sunday Audio

Fire Escapes Hazards

Missing Treads


Be careful when operating on fire escapes at night. The upper floor steps may be sturdy, while the lower floors steps may be completely gone.



Some fire escape stairs are in really bad shape and using a ground ladder is the only option. 



In 1911, 146 people died at the Triangle Waist fire in New York City. Over 60 jumped to their death and the fire escape collapsed from overload. 

Rust, Corrosion


Counterbalance weights and chain on a counterbalance stair. Sometimes paint is applied over the rust and corrosion.



How stable is the hardware holding this together? Check for rusted loose bolts, hardware painted over, loose connections and unstable anchor points. Be suspect of any cracks in masonry/brick near any hardware or connection points.

Abandonment, Scrap Thieves


Exterior stairway fire escape attached to the old Bell Telephone building in N.J. The entire escape has been stripped up to the 8th floor. These are a collapse hazard for firefighters in general, without being used or having any weight being applied to them. 

Photos by Keldy Ortiz

Man Plunges Four Stories In Brooklyn Fire Escape Railing Collapse 

If utilizing a fire escape, remember it's not just the steps and connection points you have to worry about. Be cognizant of unsafe railings.

Brooklyn Fire Escape Collapse

VIDEO: Rescue Utilizing The Fire Escape

When using a fire escape is the only option. Civilian rescued in Washington Heights NY. 

Inspection, Certification, Neglect

Investigative report by media to expose the dangers of fire escapes, and the lack of inspection and enforcement.

Load Inspection

How to properly inspect and test load a fire escape.

Altered Bolted Escape

Residents fleeing smoke tried using the fire escapes, but the drop ladder was bolted and did not drop. 

Can We Use Fire Escapes?

(Above Center) An example of fire escapes assisting portable standpipe operations for fires in mid-rises with no standpipe. The use of 2" or 3" hose hauled up the fire escape into apartment windows is a common method substituting for a standpipe. These lines are connected to a gated wye to operate 1 3/4 or 2'  handlines to fight the fire. There are times when setting up on the floor below the fire isn't possible and those lines will have to set up on the fire floor remote from the fire. Aerial ladders are also used on upper floor fires if the fire escapes are unsafe. (Above Right) When exterior ventilation needs to be performed, wires and other obstructions may prevent truck companies from throwing ladders. Using the fire escapes to take out windows is acceptable if they are determined safe to use. (Above Left) Obviously, making a rescue involving people trapped on a fire escape will warrant its use. Again, apply weight slowly and pull away from wall to test while ascending.

In earlier years, fire escapes were commonly used as escape routes by building occupants during a fire. Firemen used them for operations from rescue to ventilation. Even in the past, fire escapes were subject to corrosion, overloading and failure of bolts fastened to the building, but when people’s lives are at risk and there are no other realistic options, risks are taken to save lives.


Even today many fire departments in large cities still use fire escapes for ventilation, access, rescue etc.. while other departments prohibit the use of fire escapes altogether. You may have to use an old fire escape for rescue whether assisted by a ground ladder or not. You may have to catch a child being thrown off a party balcony in the middle of the night or release the ladder of an overloaded fire escape when fleeing occupants are stranded on them. Firemen who are trapped in flashover conditions may have to use an old fire escape as a last resort to bail out of a room over the alternative. 

TIP: For fire escape ladders that are chained and locked, a ground ladder will have to be used, as the ladder will not lower. Thank thieves, burglars and SOME landlords for secured fire escapes.



HISTORY: A 1975 fire in Boston trapped a 19 year old woman and her 2 year old goddaughter. Tragically, as the rescue was about to occur the fire escape they were on collapsed just as the aerial ladder arrived. The woman and the child fell to the ground as the fireman dangled from the top of the ladder with one arm. He was able to pull himself up and survived the incident. The woman died, but miraculously the 2 year old girl survived the fall by landing on top of her godmother, breaking her fall.

These photos below won a 1976 Pulitzer prize and World Press photo of the year