How Fire Escapes Evolved

by | 24 October 2014

When we enter any commercial building these days, we make any number of unconscious expectations about its structure. Government regulation and architectural convention help to set these guidelines. For instance, we expect buildings to be safe and sufficiently load-bearing. We expect buildings to be ADA-compliant. And, in the case of a fire or other calamity, we expect buildings to be equipped with easy exits to safety. It makes sense, after all: The safety of individuals should be of paramount importance where building design is concerned.



Amazingly, this was not always the case. As Roman Mars tells it in his great 99% Invisible podcast “Good Egress,” it took the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York to spur legislation standardizing improved safety standards and egress for all commercial buildings.

That deadliest industrial disaster? It was the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire itself, inhalation or jumping to their deaths. Manhattan’s Asch Building, which housed the factory, was poorly designed to accommodate easy egress for the many workers trapped on its upper floors. Worse, the fire escapes riveted to the exterior of the building collapsed under the weight of the workers attempting to use them.



The tragedy, as Roman Mars explains, proved that “architecture couldn’t protect people. People had to protect themselves from architecture.” And the immediate consequence was a commission that helped mandate a whole new set of laws that seem common sense now but were clearly revolutionary at the time: fireproofing requirements, accessible fire extinguishers, alarm systems and sprinklers, and more sensible building access and egress.

And about that egress … Mars runs through a quick history of the fire escape from the 1700s, which was no more than a cart with a ladder on it, to the iron exterior fire escapes of the 1870s, to the well-worn, ubiquitous and always reliable fire escape stairwells we see in nearly every modern-day commercial building.



Turns out there’s a whole lot of reasoning behind why all fire escapes are interior staircases and why they all feel and look the same. Mars run down the whole history, breaking down a story that impacts nearly everyone.

Check out “Good Egress” for yourself and learn just how far fire escapes have come.