Are Fire Escape Ladders Dangerous?

Fire escape ladders might seem like chunky jungle-gym-like, pop-cameo accessories, but they serve their purpose in protecting you from a dangerous fire.

Almost 75% of all the deaths in home fires occur within the two minutes that people need to escape the house fire.

Having a fire escape ladder in place is one of the most important safety measures to ensure that you and your loved ones are safe in case of a fire and can escape ASAP. 

Here we’ll be covering some key safety tips for using fire escape ladders, when they’re dangerous to use and how to use them properly. 

History of Fire Escape Ladders

The danger myth of fire escape ladders arises from their complex history. 

In the 19th century, NYC buildings were not made to protect people from fire: the stairs were made of flammable materials, and the walls were essentially firetraps. Many people died from the fires that raged in these buildings, and city resources were exhausted from controlling the havoc. 

Amongst the first safety measures installed was the escape ladder: an iron or portable wooden stairs that acted as ‘fire escape.’ It worked out at first, but over the decades, buildings in NYC were built sturdier, and eventually, the fire escape ladders attached to balconies were taking up square footage without any purpose. People began to use them as décor, fueling the perception that they’re nothing more than furniture that only gets in the way when an actual fire happens. 

However, fire escape ladders serve the same purpose they’ve always served: to help you escape a dangerous, deadly fire. There are a few safety tips you need to keep in mind when you’re adding the fire escape ladder as a part of your safety plan

Fire Escape Ladder

Fire Escape Dangers and Safety Tips to Keep In Mind

Make Sure the Fire Escape Ladder Has Been Tested

Only buy a nationally-recognized laboratory-tested escape ladder. Whenever you buy a ladder, check for labels if there’s a ‘laboratory tested’ label on it.  

If there’s a fire escape ladder outside your window in your building, go out and test it. Make sure it slides up and down and there aren’t any loose mounting points or badly rusted areas. If there are, report them to your building management. If they don’t fix the problem, call the fire department and ask for a fire inspector to come take a look.

Maxiumum of Three Stories High

Never use a fire escape ladder that extends down more than three stories in a straight shot – they’re not built for that! The ladder could break (especially with multiple panicked people on it fleeing a fire). You could slip and fall or get seriously injured trying to escape a fire.

Each downward run in a fire escape ladder system like you see on the sides of apartment buildings should extend no more than two stories. There should be a landing or balcony at every story so escapees can zig zag down the side of the building to safety.

In commercial premises where the building extends three stories, a fire escape ladder can be used as a cut-off between other escape routes. These are usually vertical metal ladders surrounded by a metal cage so you can’t easily fall off. However, the ability to use a long vertical ladder depends on how able-bodied a person is. These are not meant to move a lot of people fast — so beware and find another option if a lot of people are trying to use it at once.

Don’t Solely Rely on Fire Escape Ladders

A good fire escape plan involves multiple different resources: a fire extinguisher, an evacuation plan, an escape route, and a smoke alarm. Don’t rely on just one of these to get you out of a fatal situation.

When there’s a fire, many of your evacuation plans might not work for many reasons. This is especially true when you have a bigger family; you need all the resources you can get.  

It is also important for people with an injury or handicap to know how to escape a fire emergency in order to ensure their safety and that of everyone else. For these people, using a fire escape ladder may not be ideal and they should prepare for other ways of escape.

Keep Them Near Windows

Keep your ladder near windows at all times. You don’t know when disaster will strike, and you don’t want to waste time looking for the ladder and setting it up in the middle of an emergency. Remember, people lose their lives in the two minutes after a fire has started; your nano-seconds matter when there’s a fire. 

PS: If your windows have security bars, make sure that there’s an emergency release device attached to them so that the windows aren’t shut when you need to set up the ladder.

Let Everyone Know!

Everyone in your house – from your kids to your mother-in-law – should know where the ladder is located so that they can use it ASAP at first sight of smoke.

Practice Escaping (Over and Over)

Practice setting up the ladder several times from the first floor so that you’re able to do it instinctively in the event of an emergency. You want to be swift and correct; practice makes perfect!

However, it is important to remember that the ladder must only be used for personal safety and should not be used for anything other than that.

One way to practice is marking a path of escape on a piece of paper and memorizing it or posting it on a clipboard in a hallway. Before using the ladder it is important to make sure that it fits properly onto the wall and that your are comfortable while standing on it. If there are any obstacles in the way or on the ground level, such as small puddles of water, fencing, or external cabling, the person using the ladder should be able to maneuver around them to reach the ground.

Note: Don’t practice setting up a ladder as part of your family fire drill. Ladders run the risk of injury and shouldn’t be used in haste. Only practice with the ladder in a non-urgent setting, and use it in case of a real emergency. 

To Conclude

Fire escape ladders are not dangerous – provided you practice how to use them, ensure they’re fully functional and tested, keep them where they’re easily accessible, and use them as add-ons to your entire fire escape plan. And please, don’t use them as furniture or quirky accessories for your house. Once you are comfortable with the idea of using a fire escape ladder, you should learn how to use it securely and safely in order to get you to the ground quickly during a fire emergency.

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Nick Klamecki, Author
About Nick Klamecki, Author

Nick Klamecki is a certified Fire and Workplace Safety expert with 15 years experience in product research and testing. He has a degree from U.C. Davis, is an active outdoorsman and spent years ensuring the safety of special needs children. Nick researches and tests workplace, industrial and safety products and provides advice on their safe use. Learn more about Nick here or connect with him on LinkedIn | Medium