By: Marek Patrosz
Fire escapes are historical and architectural parts of many New York City buildings. Old NYC tenement laws required fire escapes to be integral parts of egress from residential buildings beginning in the 1860s, these ordinances were then revamped in 1913 to include commercial buildings. This was prompted by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which resulted in the death of more than 140 workers due to improper and inaccessible egress.
Since fire escapes are located on building exteriors, they became a low-cost option for providing a second means of egress in new construction, as well as retrofits on existing buildings without compromising interior square footage. Over the course of the 20th century, however, fire escapes were slowly phased out and replaced with interior egress stairs and fire sprinklers. The configuration of fire escapes did not provide the easiest exit routes and their maintenance was not very cost-effective.
Today, fire escapes in NYC are most commonly found on low to mid-rise residential buildings. These fire escapes have withstood the test of time and continue to serve as a very critical component of every building – a second means of egress. As per the New York Labor – Title 3 – 273, fire escapes must meet the following criteria:
- Shall be built of wrought iron or steel and sustain a minimum live load of 90 pounds per square foot with factor of safety of four
- All opening leading thereto shall have an unobstructed width of two feet and an unobstructed height of at least six feet
- On every floor above the first floor there shall be a balcony firmly fastened and embracing one or more easily accessible and unobstructed openings
- The balconies shall have a width of at least four feet throughout their length and shall have a landing not less than twenty-four inches square at the head of every stairway
- There shall be a passageway between the stairway opening and the side of the building at least eighteen inches wide throughout except where the stairways reach and leave the balconies at the ends or where double run stairways are used. When not erected on the front of the building, safe and unobstructed egress shall be provided from the foot of the fire-escape by means of an open court or courts or a fireproof passageway having an unobstructed width of at least three feet throughout, leading to the street, or by means of an open area having communication with the street.
As part of our building envelope surveys and FISP (formerly Local Law 11/98) inspections, we investigate the conditions of fire escapes. A quick visual inspection usually tells us if a fire escape’s metal assembly of stairs, platforms, and ladders is safe for us to step and walk on. However, a more thorough investigation is necessary to determine the condition of the most critical components of the fire escape. The fire escape connections and the tiebacks inside the building wall cavity must be thoroughly examined to ascertain the structural stability of the fire escape and its capacity to handle the required live load. Most of the fire escapes we inspect require minor maintenance such as scraping, priming and painting, or the removal of planters, ivy on the building, stored personal items or anything else that reduces fire escape access. In less frequent instances, we see corroded structural members that are only revealed by performing probes at the building’s exterior walls.
Fire escapes are not made of titanium, and steel and wrought iron are susceptible to corrosion if exposed to the elements and the freeze thaw cycles common to the Northeast’s diverse climate. Therefore, fire escapes should be thoroughly reviewed as part of a building’s annual maintenance program. Additionally, building staff should periodically check for the following typical issues that arise when residents use fire escapes as extended living space, all of which can lead to NYC DOB violations:
- Planter boxes on or hanging off platforms or stairs
- BBQ grills on platforms
- Storage of bikes, tools, boxes, etc. on stairs and platforms
- A/C units installed in windows located on fire escapes
- Blocked windows that access fire escapes
- Blocked areas below drop down ladders
With their association to the old-timey character of New York City streetscapes, fire escapes offer a bit of architectural nostalgia. But without the proper scrutiny, combined with regular maintenance and repair programs in place, these once critical components will become NYC hazards.