Fire escapes provide a second means of egress for occupants of multi-story structures. Its critical to remember that fire escapes are poorly maintained and are exposed to the elements. The fire department can use fire escapes to our advantage for access, search & rescue, hose line placement and ventilation.
Fire officers and firefighters must identify what type of fire escape is attached to the structure during the size up and the 360. The size up factors should include, what type of fire escape, Is the fire escape in a safe and operational condition? Are occupants egressing via fire escape? Does the gooseneck ladder access the roof system and what is the location and extent of fire in relation to using the fire escape? This information should be relayed to everyone on the fire ground.
Types of Fire Escapes
The are 3 main types of fire escapes the fire department will operate on. The exterior screened stairway, party balcony and the standard fire escape.
- The exterior screened stairway
- The safest type to operate on as pictured on the photo on the left. This type of fire escape is an exterior stairwell with no drop-down ladder or gooseneck to the roof. This fire escape is similar to an interior stairwell; however, it is constructed with steel. The exterior is enclosed with a shoulder high metal railing or screen.
- The party balcony
- Used for egress from the interior of the structure. The party balcony provides an escape route from the adjoining occupancy. The problem with this type of fire escape is often caused by overloading. Remember there is no dropdown ladder or access from the street level. If occupants are located on the party balcony and they are in danger, they must be removed as fast as possible.
- The standard fire escape
- The most common found fire escape as pictured in the two photos below. The standard fire escape is constructed of metal balconies connected by narrow metal ladders or stairways. These types of fire escapes may provide a gooseneck ladder that provides roof access. Gooseneck ladders can be located on any side of the building; however, they are most common at the rear of the structure. The standard fire escape may have a counterbalance or sliding drop down ladder to street level.
Drop Down Ladders
Most standard fire escapes will have a sliding drop down ladder. The ladder is usually located at the side of the lowest landing of the fire escape. The ladder is secured off the ground by a steel hook or piece of iron. The ladder is held off the ground to prevent unwanted access to the structure or occupancy. To release the ladder the firefighter must stand under the lowest landing and use a pike pole to lift the ladder off the support and the ladder will swing free. Keep in mind that drop-down ladders are difficult to ascend and descend during fire operations. A fire department ground ladder should be placed next to the fire escape for safety and occupant removal.
Counterbalanced stairs are less common than drop down ladders. These fire escapes have a set of stairs that attach to a hinge system. The stairs are held by a counterweight system and are designed to go down as the weight of the occupants are applied to the stairs. These types of stairs are dangerous to operate. It is critical not to stand or operate under the stairs or the counterbalance weight.
The gooseneck ladder attaches to the top landing of the fire escape and extends and bends over the roof line. The bottom of the gooseneck should be secured to the roof system; however, many are not and they are just secured with roof tar. Prior to climbing and transitioning to the roof system you must ensure the gooseneck is secured.
Goosenecks are extremely dangerous to operate on; many firefighters have been severely injured and killed while operating on gooseneck ladders.
As a fire officer and firefighter, you should conduct in- service inspections in your district or response area. Make sure you identify the types of fire escapes during daylight hours as many details may be missed at night.
Next month we will discuss Fire Department Operations & Rescue from fire escapes.