Walking down the streets of New York City, the zig-zag iron work of fire escapes immediately evoke romantic images of a simpler time, having been immortalized in books, songs and plays from West Side Story to Rent. With some fire escapes being as large as whole rooms, (measuring 31 ½ feet wide by 10 ½ feet long, and wrapped by a 2 ½ foot high railing in some neighborhoods), tenants have converted their fire escapes into personal spaces for years; from private libraries, meditation spaces, laundromats and arboretums to the ultimate skybox seat at New York Yankees games. As “classic New York” as this may be, one must not forget their real purpose.
Stephen Varone, AIA, president of RAND Engineering & Architecture, P.C. in New York City notes that, “A fire escape is a critical part of a building's emergency plans. You hope you never have to use it, but if you do, it needs to be ready and reliable.”
The fire escape has been a New York City icon since the mid-19th-century. Their inclusion in city laws can be traced back to Article 7 of the New York Consolidation Act of 1891 which states, “Every such house shall be provided with a proper fire-escape, or means of escape in case of fire, to be approved by the inspector of buildings.” But it wasn’t until the late 1920s, after a series of deadly fires, that the city began to enforce tough rules requiring that all buildings be outfitted with a fire escape or a second, enclosed stairwell.
Local Law 11
Local Law 11 began life in 1980 as Local Law 10, which required five-year inspections of the street-facing façades of buildings seven stories or higher. Local Law 11 of 1998 is a slightly updated version that now mandates the inspection of all façades, whether or not they are facing the street. Local Law 11 also requires scaffolding with each inspection, a report on the cause of any deterioration, and a timetable for repair. Upon inspection buildings are classified as "Safe," "Unsafe," or "Safe with a Repair and Maintenance Program" (SWARMP).
“Every five years, an engineer or architect performing the Local Law 11 facade inspection on your building should look for any unsafe conditions on the fire escapes,” says Peter Varsalona, P.E., who is principal with RAND. “Considered unsafe,” he says, “are any items or debris on the fire escape, such as flower pots, blocks or bricks (often used to secure window air conditioners), personal items, or anything that could fall from the fire escape or obstruct egress.”