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Fascinating Fire Escapes: Part 2

By Jonathan Stevens, Assoc. A.I.A., LEED AP

Having been working at CBI for a few years now, I have had the opportunity to work on quite a few fire escape repair projects and now I’m seeing fire escapes in an entirely new light.  I see them not only as a reflection of an amazing architectural era during an industrial boom, but as beautiful, hand crafted architectural elements that are, in most cases, hidden in alleys and behind buildings.  Although, sometimes they are in plain site for all to see.  Some see them as an eye sore, and not too long ago, I was one of those people.  Now after seeing the many design styles of fire escapes and the great metal fabrication that went into constructing them, I have become a huge fan and more often than not, I seek them out on my travels.  I’ll discuss things to look for if you own or run a building with a fire escapes in order to keep them in good working order as well as some MA State Building Codes that you should be aware of.

Fire escapes are constantly exposed to all types of weather.  Most being installed more than a century ago, you can be sure that your fire escape is going to need some type of preventative maintenance or some level of repair in order to keep it operating properly.  MA State Building Code requires all exterior bridges, steel or wooden stairways, fire escapes, and egress balconies to be examined and/or tested, and certified for structural adequacy every five years by a registered design professional, or others qualified and acceptable to the building official. 

Because of the year round exposure fire escapes receive from the weather they can deteriorate fairly quickly and may become a safety hazard.  The cost of repairs often depends on how early potential problems are spotted.  Steel, cast iron, and wrought iron fire escapes tend to oxidize or rust and weaken their structural integrity.  The repair process and type is dependent on the amount of deterioration present on the different members of the fire escape.  Slightly oxidized areas should be cleaned of any surface rust or paint by means of a wire brush, sand blasting, or grinding.  After the surface is prepped it can then be coated with rust inhibitor and paint.  For areas with more serious deterioration where portions of the metal are beyond repair or completely missing, those sections need to be cut out entirely and replaced with new sections welded in their place to match.

A range of connections types can be used to secure a fire escape to the building.  Some of the connection details include strut support brackets that and can be pocketed into masonry, metal plates with expansion bolts, or attached with the use of through bolts.  When masonry pockets at support struts crack or the mortar has lost its integrity, the support and its pocket need to be repaired.  The weight of the fire escape can eventually crack the mortar allowing water to infiltrate the connection and accelerate deterioration.  If the problem is not addressed quickly, not only can the strut support and mortar pocket be in need of repair or replacement, but it can lead to further masonry issues and can seriously affect the performance of the building envelope as well.

Per MA State Building Code, “all exterior stairways and fire escapes shall be kept free of snow and ice.  Exterior stairways and fire escapes constructed of materials requiring the application of weather protecting products shall have these products applied in an approved manner and shall be applied as often as necessary to maintain the stairways and fire escapes in safe condition.  Depending on the structural condition, a load test of any fire escape shall be conducted before it is returned to service.  Weather resistant structural fasteners and connections shall tie the stairways and fire escapes directly into the buildings structural system.  In occupancies in Groups R and I-1, bars, grilles or screens placed over emergency escape windows shall be releasable or removable from the inside without the use of a tool.”

Whether or not you choose to keep up with the maintenance of your fire escape, the MA State Code will force you into some sort of action every 5 years in order for it to be in operation.  It’s highly suggested that the building owner visually inspect the fire escape once a year in order to spot possible deterioration in the early stages to hopefully lessen the cost of repairs.  If upon inspection, signs of damage, heavy oxidation, missing members, or anything that may impede in the safe use of the fire escape, the building owner or manager should contact a registered design professional for a review and recommendations on how to proceed as to avoid costly code violations and/or larger scale repairs in the future.

To read Part 1 of Fascinating Fire Escapes, click here.