How many people can you fit on a fire escape?
This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
Oil-based, high gloss exterior paint over rust resistant primer, caked on decade after decade until it bubbles and cracks. A little bit of rust around the bolts. Simple brackets attached to brick facades in a way that, upon first glance, wouldn’t seem to hold up a shelf in my apartment. Fire escapes are an undeniable icon of New York City, dotting the exteriors of residential buildings up and down the streets in every borough. We love them despite their nauseating appearance. They make us think of scenes in the films Breakfast At Tiffany’s or West Side Story. Their romantic appeal is an indication of the quality of romance in this city—looks great when expressed through a work of art, but falls far short in day-to-day practice.
Henry Vieregg patented the first U.S. fire escape in 1898. However, Vieregg’s patents show a pulley apparatus that doesn’t look like what we think of as the New York City fire escape. I found five other patents in Vieregg’s name, including one for a severely cone shaped parachute that doesn’t quite look like it would work. It seems he had a bit of an obsession with helping get humans safely to the ground. Looking through his patents, I wondered if he had a fear of heights or loved them, and I imagined the types of childhood experiences that might have sparked this obsession.
It wasn’t until 1914 that a structure and system resembling our mental image of the fire escape appeared in a patent filed by George Moran, Guy Barber, and Louis Frazee, shortly after legislation passed requiring that fire escapes on all buildings built after October 13th, 1913 had to be made of wrought iron or steel with the ability to sustain 90lbs per square foot.
This legislation was in response to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which broke out in a clothing factory near Washington Square Park. Due to the location of the fire and locked doors, the only way to exit the building was the roof or an elevator that quickly stopped operating after the fire began. While a crowd watched from the street, 137 people died, some jumping from eighth, ninth, or tenth-story windows.
So exactly how many people can you fit on a fire escape? The answer to that question depends on what kind of fire escape. Ones with slender, permanent staircases are built with the intention to hold a person on almost every other step, with more on the platforms. This type maxes out at twelve people per floor. On fire escapes with wider stairs (44 inches wide) and cantilevered steps to the ground, this number doubles to twenty-four people per floor. Iterations with only a single ladder between floors are intended to only support two people at a time.
Fire escapes: invented to prevent fiery massacres; carried on in our collective memory as images of romance; now slowly starting to fall away as building codes change. The interior staircase is now the exit strategy of choice, and exterior fire escapes haven’t been required since 1968. Notably, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and West Side Story debuted in 1961.