Fire escape ladders are one of the most important tools to help people escape from being trapped in a building that is on fire, from earthquakes, or acts of terror. A fire escape ladder is actually a simple and easy-to-use system where a person can easily scale the side of a building using only their hands and feet to get to the ground safely.
How to Use a Building Fire Escape Ladder
These escape ladders are the ones you see attached to the sides of buildings. They are permanently attached and are never removed, unless for building maintenance, repair, or demolition. These are often located at the bottom of a series of flights of stairs or staggered from balcony to balcony at each level. Drop-down ladders do not fully reach the ground to keep the use of ground space to a minimum.
For more information, see our post Where Are Fire Escape Ladders Required?
How to Use Drop-down, Retractable or Cage Fire Escape Ladders
Step 1. Exit the building through a window or door that leads to the access balcony connected to the fire escape stairs and/or ladder.
Step 2. If it is a side retractable fire escape ladder, unlock the ladder by shifting the lever on the outside brace at the top. This will open the ladder outward from the side of the building.
If it is a drop-down ladder, kick the locking mechanism if it is on a lower rung, or switch the top lever mechanism that locks the ladder in place so that it drops down.
If it is a cage ladder, unlock the safety bar that prevents anyone from entering the ladder.
Step 3. Unlock the safety door at the bottom of the cage ladder to exit the lower end. Remove the lower rung covering if there is one.
Step 4. Quickly climb down by making sure your feet are firmly planted on each rung and you hold tight grip.
Step 5. Once down, exit the area to safety.
How to Use a Home Fire Escape Ladder
Using a Rope / Chain Fire Escape Ladder
These fire escape ladders are not permanently attached to the side of the house or apartment complex. They are rolled up, or compactly stacked and stored near a window, usually underneath a nearby bead or desk. They are easy to unfurl and use when you follow these simple steps:
Step 1. Open the window from the inside.
Step 2. Remove your screen quickly.
Step 3. Get the ladder bag out from underneath the bed or desk and and take the ladder out of the bag.
Step 4. Pull the Velcro strip that holds the ladder together.
Step 5. Throw the ladder out the window or over the balcony, with the hooks on the window sill and let it drop to the ground.
Step 6. Make sure the ladder hook is firmly in place on the window sill or balcony and the outside wall braces are in place if they are included.
Step 7. Get a firm grip on the window sill as you turn around and place your first step onto the escape ladder. Use a chair to climb out the window if needed.
Step 8. Look down and make sure no trees, bushes, or other obstructions are stopping the ladder from reaching the ground. Make sure the ladder standouts are touching the side of the house and not against a lower window (you will have to test the ladder first to find out).
Step 9. Carefully climb over the window sill and out the window while holding the metal hooks firmly.
Step 10. Climb down one rung at a time while gripping the side chains, cable, or rope and rungs with your hands.
Step 11. Quickly leave the area around the burning home to safety.
Using a Fold-out Fire Escape Ladder
These are attached to the sides of houses and are used by individuals and families to escape 2nd-floor windows during a fire. They are installed and hung with bolts on the side of the structure and the ladder is folded up and is opened sideways and down during an emergency.
Step 1. Open the Window from the inside.
Step 2. Remove the lock pin.
Step 3. Open the ladder.
Step 4. Look out the window and below to make sure no person or object is blocking the ladder from folding down to the ground level.
Step 5. Hold the top rung while straddling the window sill.
Step 6. Make sure to have a good foothold and handhold on the ladder before descending.
Step 7. Climb down the ladder.
Step 8. Move quickly away from the burning structure and to safety.
If you live or work on the second floor or above in any type of building, make sure to know where the escape exits and ladders are in case of an emergency. Fire smoke can be dense and difficult to see through, so knowing where the exits are ahead of time, such as windows with escape ladders is crucial. This knowledge could prevent you from getting trapped in a burning house or building.
Homeowners should invest in a fire escape ladder for themselves and their families. As soon as you get your pre-made fire escape ladder fully put it together and ready to be used. Also, make sure it fits your window and will reach the ground when unfurled. Practice using the fire escape ladders before a fire breaks out and make sure it is sturdy enough to climb down. Do this before a fire breaks out so you are confident and ready to use it.
Many rope or chain ladders are used on boats or docks by placing them over rope hooks or “cleats” permanently attached to the boat or dock. If you are escaping over a balcony railing, thrown the ladder over the railing and fasten it with a steel carabiner. You may also not have time to use the safety harness in an emergency, so consider ignoring it and just get down quickly.
Although fire escape ladders can handle several people at once, it may be best to let one person go at a time to keep the ladder steady. Practice using a rope or cable fire escape ladder before a fire breaks out and store it next to a window under a bed or desk so you can easily access it.
Fire escape ladders are not hard to use, and all you need is to practice in order to get the hang of it. As long as you know how to use it properly then you should have no trouble using it in an emergency. If you do not own a fire escape ladder for your home, definitely consider getting one or more of them. Having one and knowing how to use it brings more peace of mind to you and your family.
Nick Klamecki is a certified Fire and Workplace Safety expert with 15 years experience in product research and testing. He has a degree in Economics 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.