Fire escape ladders have served as a means of escaping homes and buildings during fires, earthquakes, or emergency events for many years. In the past, requirements were set that mandated fire escape ladders be attached to buildings to allow people to evacuate when all other exits are blocked. But is this still true? Find out below.
Types of Fire Escape Ladders
First, let us discuss the fact that there are actually different types of fire escape ladders.
The most common type of fire escape ladder is permanent and hangs from the sides of commercial and residential buildings. This is made of durable and tough steel or iron that is designed to bear heavy loads. These are often attached to safety balconies and allow users to skip the stairs if they choose to in an emergency. Some of these will also have cages to protect individuals from falling on the way down.
Another type of fire escape ladder is made to attach to the wall of a building and retract when released. These are usually more aesthetically pleasing and better fit the architecture of the building.
And finally, the home fire escape ladder is a temporary, one-time use rope, metal cable, or chain ladder with individual anti-slip rungs. These are stored near a window and are unfurled out of it in the event of a fire emergency.
Fire Escape Ladder Requirements
For both commercial and residential buildings, fire escape ladder requirements exist to allow occupants options for escape during a fire emergency.
International Fire Code (IRC)
The International Fire Code provides minimum regulations for fire prevention and safety systems to occupants of buildings and structures.
For the following information, see the 2021 International Fire Code.
According to the International Fire Code (IRC), ladders serve as a “means of egress” from buildings, rooms, and mezzanines.
See Chapter 10, Means of Egress, 2021 International Fire Code, sections:
Boiler, incinerator and furnace rooms: 1006.2.2.1
Refrigeration and machinery rooms: 1006.2.2
Ships ladders descending from elevated control rooms or observation stations: 1011.15
Exit path not blocked by foyers and lobbies: 1030.4
Access to a fire escape stairway: 1104.16.4
Fire escape materials and strength; constructed of noncombustible materials: 1104.16.5
Importantly, fire escape stairs and balconies shall be capable of supporting the dead weight plus a live weight of not less than 100 pounds per square foot (4.78 kN/m2 ). Section 1184.108.40.206 now requires fire escape balconies and stairways to be examined and tested for structural adequacy and safety every 5 years by a qualified and registered design official or other recognized professional by the fire code official. An inspection report shall be submitted to the fire code official after the testing and examination are complete.
The exception allowed for a fire escape ladder to reach the ground for 10 or fewer occupants when terminating a fire escape stairway: 1104.16.6 within section 1104.16, fire escape stairway requirements.
Access ladders for Vaults: 5704.2.8.15
International Building Code (IBC)
The International Building Code sets minimum performance requirements for building designs and useable materials. Several sections of the 2021 International Building Code cover fire escapes, balconies, ladders, and exits. These include:
Fire escape – means of egress, heliports and helistops, landing areas on buildings, second means of egress to floor below permitted to be a ladder: 412.7.3
Related 2021 IBC codes:
Fire-retardant-treated wood – platforms: 410.3
Fire-resistant construction: 701.1
Fire window assemblies: 716.3
Fire resistance, calculated – steel assemblies: 722.5
Fire resistance, calculated – wood assemblies: 722.6
Fire-retardant-treated wood – balconies: 705.2.3.1
American Society For Civil Engineers
If a fire escape is added to a new or existing building, it must fulfill requirements for strength and weight-bearing loads for the materials used in its construction. The American Society of Engineers gives detailed design load requirements for buildings and other structures.
ASTM International provides standard testing methods for running fire tests on building construction and materials in ASTM E119 -20.
Underwriters Laboratory (UL)
UL provides standards for testing building materials for fire resistance in UL Standard 263 -Fire Tests of Building Construction and Materials. Make sure your fire escape ladder for your home has been tested by an independent testing agency such as UL.
National Fire Escape Association (NFEA)
The NFEA covers the 2015 IFC 1220.127.116.11 code addressing fire escape regulations.
Importantly, a fire escape stairway and balcony must be inspected every 5 years by a registered design official or other professional acceptable to the fire code official, or as required by a fire code official. This is to make sure they meet structural adequacy and safety requirements. An inspection report shall be completed and sent to the fire code official after.
Also covered by NFEA is the NFEA Standards for Restoration and Replacement of Fire Escapes.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
OSHA provides regulations related to fire escapes and exits, presented in:
For fixed ladders used in emergency situations, see:
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
The NFPA addresses in the NFPA 1: Fire Code the inspection of buildings and equipment, and fire-related safety issues. Also covered are the design, construction, remodeling, and additions to new buildings and existing buildings to meet the fire code.
See NFPA Journal, September-October, 2014 concerning Fire Escapes. This article declares “While the codes typically are clear that fire escapes cannot be used in new construction, there are few requirements addressing fire escapes in existing buildings. Both NFPA 1, Fire Code, and the Life Safety Code have only general references to the maintenance of fire escapes.” Also, “Aside from a requirement to maintain the means of egress free of obstructions, there are no specific criteria for the frequencies or methods for inspections, painting, or load testing of fire escapes.”
International Residential Code (IRC)
The International Residential Code (IRC) covers requirements for windows and doors in:
Chapter 3, Building and Planning, 2018 International Residential Code. Especially sections:
R302 – Fire Resistant Construction
R310 – Emergency Escape and Rescue Openings
Different States Have Different Fire Escape Ladder Requirements
Each state in the U.S. has unique building requirements related to fire escapes and ladders. These are usually extensions or modifications of the IBC codes. For example, in Nevada, new fire escapes are not permitted to be built, unless the building official decides they are necessary. Only existing fire escapes on existing buildings as a means of egress for a fire emergency are allowed. However, these are determined based on the architect or designers’ analysis that the exterior stairways cannot be used as a sufficient fire escape due to lot size or potential blocking of the sidewalk, alleys, or adjacent roadways. This would then require fire escape stairs with possible ladders to be constructed with the building.
Importantly, 3406.1.3 makes clear that new fire escapes if built cannot incorporate ladders or access by windows. Additionally, fire escapes cannot make up more than 50% of the building’s required exit capacity.
Maintenance Problems with Fire Escapes and Ladders
Fire escapes and ladders cause building and fire code officials a lot of headaches because they are susceptible to decay, rust, and mechanical failure.
Most fire escape stairways, ladders, balconies, hinges, and fasteners are constructed of carbon or galvanized steel which will rust and reduce its strength. Also, exterior stairways tend to not be maintained well enough and face decay from exposure to weather.
For this reason, fire escapes are required to be inspected at least once every 5 years by the IFC. If not, fire escapes and ladders could become dangers in themselves to those trying to escape a burning building.
Fire escape ladders were and still are necessary for the safety of people working in buildings to have in place to help them get out of harm’s way. While times have changed and new buildings do not necessarily require permanent outdoor fire escape ladders or stairs, existing ones need to be inspected and maintained.
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.