The slideshow above is the exterior stairway fire escape attached to the old Bell Telephone building in N.J.

Corrosion and neglect due to age, weather, and abandonment of the building has deemed this fire escape dangerous and completely useless. Most of the steps are gone and the weak connections to the masonry will have this eight story fire escape easily pulling away from the building.

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.


VIDEO: Unsafe fire escape investigation.

OPEN INTERIOR STAIRWAY: In single and multi-family dwellings, the open interior stairwell must be protected for fleeing occupants.

STAIRWAYS AND STAIRWELLS: It's important to become familiar with and identify the common types of stairways and stairwells in the fire building. Firemen use them for hose stretches, attack/ventilation/evacuation stairs, fire/smoke spread concerns, primary/secondary means of access/egress, occupant escape, portable standpipe operations and determining standpipe locations.

Remember where the stairwells are on the fire floor for emergency egress.

Simple residential return stair.

Open center stairwells are ideal for portable standpipe operations.

L to R: Spiral, Straight and Scissorstairs. Scissor stairs will have standpipe connections at every other landing in each well. Usually scissor stairs consist of two stairwells in one shaft and can be confusing to some when determining the hookup floor.

L to R: Open stairwell, fire tower and enclosed stairwell. Enclosed stairwell walls have a fire rating of two hours.

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

When sizing up fire escapes look for corrosion, old hardware and other hazards. The fire escape inspectors in this video explain how.

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

For more information on fire escapes, visitThe National Fire Escape Association.

Firemen can still operate safely on fire escapes if they can identify hazards. Many departments still use fire escapes for VES, rescue, ventilation,  water supply (to handlines on the floor below) access and egress. See the VIDEO below to identify unsafe fire escapes.

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

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.

How stable is the hardware holding this together?

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

Party balcony fire escapes 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.

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. 

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

Taxpayers with counterbalance stairways or dropladders may be chained and locked by the owner to prevent intruders.

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.

Screened Exterior Fire Escape: Would you trust walking down this fire escape in this old building? Fire preplans in these buildings should include the fire escapes to determine their stability. Some are actually kept up to code and in very good condition, others are corroded and unsafe.

The standard fire escape with a drop ladder is the most common fire escape. 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. Keep the weight of drop ladder on the hook until lowered.

(See video below)

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 fireman 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.

Fire escapes have saved many lives over the past 100 years. They are definitely more dangerous nowadays because of age, neglect and corrosion, but 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 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 their members shouldn't 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 on them. There are three major types of fire escapes:

Standard with mechanical street 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.

TIP: Many fire escapes have been altered in recent years. In addition to being damaged, many fire escapes have been intentionally chained, locked, held together by bungee cords or partially disassembled. Always check for damage, alterations, locking devices, corrosion, and loose masonry at connection points when using or working in the vicinity of fire escapes.


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 peoples lives are at risk and there are no other realistic options, risks are taken to save lives.

ABOVE: Many of the firemen in 1970's Boston didn't have bunker pants, hoods, SCBA's, TIC's, portable radios or the advanced safety equipment the modern day firefighter has. Buildings didn't have the fire protection systems or strict fire codes of today. The brave MEN above were true heroes and even though disaster occurred during THIS particular rescue operation, they still risked their own lives trying to save others. In this tragic incident, the firemen HAD to use this fire escape, as victims were stranded on the party balcony in extreme danger. The only other option for the victims were to go back in the fire apartment, or jump to their death.


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.

BELOW LEFT: Apicture 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.

BELOW RIGHT: 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 there are unsafe fire escapes or none present.

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.