Have you ever looked at fire escape structures on the outside of buildings and wonder how they came to be standard on large buildings across the country? It may seem obvious to have some extra form of escape in the event a fire blocked off staircases, but buildings were not always built with exterior fire escapes, and even many of today’s large apartment and office buildings are built without them.
There was a particular point in history at which they began to be standard in the world of construction. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to say that the origin of fire escapes was in New York City in the early 1800s.
A history of fire escapes
In 1835, there was a fire in New York’s Financial District. The number of fatalities was low—only two people died—but the fire cost a significant amount of money given the sheer amount of damage done to commercial properties. The total cost was estimated at $20 million, which means it resulted in damages that cost three times as much as building the entire Erie Canal. Nearly 700 buildings were destroyed, and 23 of the 26 fire insurance companies in the city were put out of business as a result.
It’s believed the fire started when a gas pipe burst in a warehouse. Warehouses were full of very flammable objects, and it didn’t take long for the fire to spread. The fire had even longer to do its damage because the weather was freezing and the firefighters had to cut through ice in the river to pull water to fight the fire.
Without going into too much detail, the process of fighting the fire was a disaster. It took forever and was ineffective, and the city realized more needed to be done to create more resilient structures. As a result, in the Great Fire of 1845, 30 people died, but the fire didn’t spread nearly as far or as quickly because the city decided to rely on stone and brick structures instead.
As the population continued to boom in New York, tenements and apartment buildings became packed with people. These tenements were overly cramped, filthy and seen by many as being massive fire risks. In 1860, a pair of bad tenement fires occurred, and the city knew it had to take immediate action. It passed a law that would make tenements better able to stand up to fire. One of the regulations it included was that any home for more than eight families was required to have fireproof stairs either inside or outside the building.
Given the nature of these buildings, it became easier for many of them to add the fireproof stairs to the building’s exterior, rather than to complete extensive remodels of the interior. Some of these fire escapes were better designed (and safer) than others, but over time, more regulations came into place for the implementation and maintenance of these structures to ensure the safety of residences.
And there you have it: an extremely abbreviated history of fire escape origins in San Francisco, CA and elsewhere. Interested in learning more? The team at Great Escape Fire Escape Service is here to answer your questions. Contact us today!