Fire Escapes – A Fascinating History

Fire Escapes – A Fascinating History

08th January 2014

One of the very first fire escapes was invented in England in 1784 by Daniel Maseres.  It was a rudimentary machine which was fastened to a window and provided a means for a person to descend to street level without injury.  Superintendent of the ‘Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire’, Abraham Wivell improved the design and added an escape chute.  The first US fire escape was patented in Grand Island, New England by Henry Vieregg in 1898 – a device designed for travelling businessmen.
Safety Ladders - Fire Escape
Fire safety became an important consideration for new constructions around the turn of the 20th Century as building codes became more commonplace in countries around the world.  Building owners began to be required to provide an adequate escape route in case of fire.  Fire escapes could easily be included in new constructions at little extra cost and it was also a simple matter to add them to existing buildings.  Building codes evolved rapidly to address safety concerns and it became a legal requirement in many countries for any construction above a certain number of floors to include a second means of egress.  External fire escapes were deemed acceptable as a retrofit option for existing buildings before the post World War 2 period.

During the 1930s tubular chute style fire escapes began to replace the open ladder type fire escape in hospitals, schools and other institutions – with the main advantage that in hospitals it was possible to slide patients down on their mattresses.  

In the mid 20th Century we saw a building boom in the UK that increased urban sprawl with a huge increase in public housing during the fifties and sixties.  This was when it became apparent that there were problems with existing fire escapes, with the safety ladders often being used for access to and from apartments.  Indeed, in warmer parts of the US, residents of apartment buildings commonly used the fire escape platforms for sleeping on during the hot summer months (this practice was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film ‘Rear Window’).  In a modern twist, the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet was relocated to a fire escape in the musical ‘West Side Story’.

Nowadays, there are strict rules and regulations governing the construction, installation and use of fire escapes and emergency exits.  Building codes dictate the number of fire exits required for buildings of any given size and purpose.  Any building larger than a private house legally need to include at least two sets of stairs that must be completely separate from each other.  This has led to architects using an innovative and imaginative double helix configuration where two stair cases can actually be intertwined to occupy the same floor space.  

Fire drills are a legal requirement in many business premises and public institutions – knowing where the fire escape is at work can save your life.  The UK Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996 require that an illuminated fire safety sign (or acoustic signal) is necessary to ensure that emergency exits are effective.  Fire escapes – whether they are fixed access ladder, special doors or chutes on airplanes are the life savers of the modern world.