What is a Fire Escape?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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Once a common sight in many metropolitan neighborhoods, fire escapes were external devices found on many apartment and office buildings. The purpose of the fire escape was to provide an emergency exit from the building in the event of a fire or some other type of problem with the usual means of exiting. Often constructed with sturdy metal, the landings of the fire escape also served as a great extension to the internal space.

The configuration for a fire escape is very simple. Metal landings or platforms are attached to the side of the building, in close proximity to windows for each apartment or office on the floor. Each landing can be reached from upper and lower floors by means of steel ladders that can be raised or lowered as needed.

In some versions of the fire escape, the ladders are permanently fixed in place. This configuration was often used with office buildings, as it eliminated the need to position the ladders in the event of an emergency. Residential buildings, on the other hand, typically featured the retractable ladders, giving residents a heightened sense of privacy.


Before air conditioning became commonplace, many city dwellers would make use of the fire escape as a place to escape the heat of the apartment during summer months. In some neighborhoods, it would not be unusual to see residents pulling a mattress onto the fire escape landing and sleeping outside on a clear night. At other times, the fire escape offered an ideal place to set up a small charcoal grill and prepare meals outside.

Much more than a simple fire exit, the fire escape provided a welcome extension of living space for cramped apartments. Along with use as an emergency exit, the fire escape often functioned in a manner similar to porches and patios in suburban homes. While no longer installed with new construction, older neighborhoods often still feature buildings with old-fashioned fire escapes.


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