A fire escape is a special kind of emergency exit, usually mounted to the outside of a building or occasionally inside but separate from the main areas of the building. It provides a method of escape in the event of a fire or other emergency that makes the stairwells inside a building inaccessible. Fire escapes are most often found on multiple-story residential buildings, such as apartment buildings. At one time, they were a very important aspect of fire safety for all new construction in urban areas; more recently, however, they have fallen out of common use.
A fire escape consists of a number of horizontal platforms (usually steel gratings), one at each story of a building, with ladders or stairs connecting them. Railings are usually provided on each of the levels, but as fire escapes are designed for emergency use only, these railings often do not need to meet the same standards as railings in other contexts. The ladder from the lowest level of the fire escape to the ground may be fixed, but more commonly it swings down on a hinge or slides down along a track. The moveable designs allow occupants to safely reach the ground in the event of a fire but prevent persons from accessing the fire escape from the ground at other times (Such as to perpetrate a burglary or vandalism).
Exit from the interior of a building to the fire escape may be provided by a fire exit door, but in some cases the only exit is through a window. When there is a door, it is often fitted with a fire alarm to prevent other uses of the fire escape, and to prevent unauthorized entry. As many fire escapes were built before the advent of electronic fire alarms, fire escapes in older buildings have often needed to be retrofitted with alarms for this purpose.
As building codes became more common in industrialized countries around the turn of the 20th century, fire safety became an important concern for new construction. Building owners were increasingly required to provide adequate escape routes, and at the time, fire escapes seemed the best option available. The invention of these exterior steel staircases is widely credited to Anna Connelly who first registered a patent for a fire escape in the USA in 1887. Not only could they be included in new construction at a low cost, but they could be very easily added to existing construction. In many urban centers, all new construction above a certain number of stories was required to have external fire escapes throughout much of the 20th century.
However, with the urban sprawl and increase in the amount of construction in the mid-20th century, particularly the increase in public housing in major cities in the United States and Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, certain problems with fire escapes became clear. In the poorer areas of cities like Chicago and New York, fire escapes were commonly used for everything but their intended purpose.
In the hot summer months, residents of mid-rise apartment buildings would sleep outside on the platforms of their fire escapes. Such a situation triggered the plot premise of Cornell Woolrich's 1947 short story, "The Boy Cried Murder," about a boy on a fire escape who one night witnesses a murder in a neighboring apartment; this story was filmed as the suspense thriller The Window (1949). The practice of sleeping on fire escapes can also be seen in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 movie Rear Window (also based on a Woolrich short story), as well as Weegee's photography of the Lower East Side). Diagonal shadows of fire escapes made them a constant motif in film noir, and the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet was transposed to a fire escape for the musical West Side Story.
Boston Herald American photographer Stanley J. Forman won a 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his powerful photo of two people plunging from a faulty fire escape during a 1975 Boston fire, and the controversial, unforgettable image resulted in tougher fire safety codes in several states.
People would use fire escapes as balconies for throwing parties. In some cases, the excess weight has caused fire escapes to collapse. In addition, fire escapes proved ill-suited to modern construction techniques for high-rises. Today, external fire escapes are rarely part of new construction.