How safe are New York’s ubiquitous fire escapes?
New York City is full of peculiar phenomena—rickety fire escapes; 100-year-old subway tunnels; air conditioners propped perilously into window frames—that can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest city denizen. But should they? Every month, we’ll be exploring—and debunking—these New York-specific fears, letting you know what you should actually worry about, and what anxieties you can simply let slip away.
Joseph Pell Lombardi has been an architect for over 50 years, and his business—converting commercial buildings to residential—often requires him to tour old, dilapidated warehouses and similar structures. And there’s one part of these buildings that Lombardi does not set foot in—or rather, on.
“I do everything I can to not stand out on a fire escape,” Lombardi says. “I will look out at it from the window. But you would really have to talk me into it, or figure out some way to get me out on a fire escape.”
Lombardi isn’t the only one with concerns. For decades, New Yorkers longing for a tiny balcony, a little extra storage space, or a miniature garden have slithered out onto their fire escapes and thought to themselves, Hey, I wonder if this thing is really structurally sound. And there may be good reason to worry. In February of this year, one person was killed and two others were injured when a piece of a fire escape broke off a Soho building and plummeted seven stories. Stories about people climbing out onto fire escapes and falling to their deaths—one such incident occurred earlier this month—also occur with some regularity.
Disconcertingly, it is impossible to tell based on the age of a building how safe its fire escape might be. Due to changes to the building code in 1968 that halted the construction of external fire escapes, all of the existing ones are at least half a century old. The oldest among them, which began to appear in the mid-late 19th century, are made of wrought iron, which, according to Lombardi, makes them very fragile. The newer ones are made of steel, which is sturdier. But, as Lombardi points out, many of the steel fire escapes are not original to their buildings—they were added later, after a revision to the Tenement House Act in 1901 required buildings to have a second means of egress—and “sometimes they may have been added very well, structurally, and other times they weren’t added very well, because they were an afterthought.”
However, if the structural integrity of fire escapes is something that keeps you up at night, you can at least take comfort in the fact that incidents of fire escapes breaking are few and far between. “If you just want to look at the data, we have fewer than two incidents per year that end up in either injury or fatality,” says Jill Hrubecky, executive engineer for the NYC Department of Buildings Investigative Engineering Services. (That statistic only includes incidents where the DoB was called, not incidents where just the police were called, as may be the case when someone slips and falls.)
The law requires landlords of buildings over six and a half stories (in other words, six stories plus a basement) to hire a licensed professional—either an architect or an engineer—to inspect the fire escapes every five years. For buildings that are six stories or smaller, no such specific requirements exist, beyond property owners being required by code to maintain their buildings in safe condition. “Essentially, every building should constantly be safe,” Hrubecky says. “That’s not always the case, obviously.”
Regardless of how frequently your building is inspected, however, no one should necessarily feel comfortable cavorting on their fire escape, smoking cigarettes and wooing the sister of their rival gang leader. “Fire escapes are there for a reason,” Hrubecky says. “I know it’s very romantic, especially in New York—West Side Story and all that stuff—people want to hang out and get their little ukulele and sing ‘Moon River,’ but that’s not what their purpose is. Their purpose is to be a second means of egress.”
At some point in New York City’s future, the question of whether fire escapes are safe or not may become moot. The 1968 changes to the building code made it essentially illegal for new buildings to be constructed with exterior fire escapes; fireproof interior stairwells, equipped with sprinklers, are now favored instead. And architects like Lombardi prefer to remove them entirely in situations where the law permits.
But not everyone is on board with their extinction. In 2015, Lombardi was forced to abandon his plans to remove the fire escapes from two buildings in the Soho Cast Iron District after the residents revolted —although, in that case, he speculates that the dissension may have come more from a general distrust of landlord-approved changes than from a sincere belief that external fire escapes are the only way to evacuate a building.
“It made no sense,” he says. “I was going to provide two oversized stairs in fireproof enclosures with sprinkler systems. I believe that was an unwise decision, if it was focused on safety.” He also pointed out that the fire escapes were not part of the original character of the buildings, as they were among the group that had been added after the 1901 law. (For some, fire escapes serve more than a practical function—in 2016, Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, told Curbed that “they hark back to a time when the barriers between your and your neighbor’s lives and physical space were much more tenuous than now.”)
For the time being, as long as the fire escapes manage to keep themselves attached to their buildings, a great many of them are here to stay. “If somebody sees a fire escape that they think might be questionable, and even if they’re not sure, call 311,” Hrubecky advises. “It’ll get directed to us, an inspector will go out, and if there’s something wrong, we’ll take action. And if there’s nothing wrong, then, oh well.”