Outdoor fire escape systems have been a familiar escape device for those living in high rise buildings for many years, but are they becoming obsolete? Buildings all over the world are beginning to lose their fire escapes and instead, are being built with internal fireproof staircases. This is due to the 1987 change in building code, which moved towards supplying safer fire evacuation methods for taller buildings and more common use of fire detection systems. While the new buildings codes brought about safer alternatives for emergency escape, some argue that taking away fire escapes is like taking away a piece of history.

Fire escapes have been in use since 1784 in England, but didn’t become popular until the mass urbanization of areas like New York City and Chicago. Building external fire escapes was much cheaper than building a somewhat “fireproof” internal staircase. However, as fire escapes grew in popularity, more and more  people started to use them for unintended purposes. In poorer areas of New York people would use their fire escapes to cook, clean clothes, and even sleep there during extreme heat. This would protrude the walkway and cause hazards for when actual emergency evacuations were necessary. Furthermore, fire escapes were rarely maintained, and many fell into serious disrepair. Triangle Factory on Fire- March 25, 1911[/caption] This shows just how poorly regulated fire escape were at the time, when it came to an actual emergency, the system failed to complete its job.

The code in 1987 prohibited the use of outdoor fire escapes on newly erected buildings and instead,outdoor emergency escapes were to be replaced with internal fire-proof staircases. These internal stairs were meant to be a safer egress alternative, even though in an emergency it’s possible that they could become inundated with toxic smoke. Many buildings also moved towards adding sprinkler and gas systems in order to suppress the blaze of a fire.

Despite the new building codes, the number of fire escape preservationists is growing and numerous preservation projects have taken place. These preservationists argue that fire escapes allow us to appreciate our cultural and architectural heritage, while also providing a unique space to enjoy, just as our ancestors once did. Fire escapes have been a part of architectural and firefighting history for over a hundred years, but what once offered a solution for those stuck in burning buildings, are now becoming obsolete in light of new inventions and findings.