Good Egress

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

When designing a commercial structure, the architect must make the hallways wide enough for wheelchair. The materials must be compatible with its surrounding climate. The beams must be able to support the building and withstand the wind. The building should be dynamic, interesting, comfortable, and ready to be completely abandoned if it burns.

There a number of considerations for how a building should respond to emergency:

Adam Winig: Horns versus strobes, versus speakers, the pulsating frequency of the light, the intensity of the light, smoke dampening, it goes on and on.

Roman: There’s these sprinklers, the panic bars, you know the spring-loaded horizontal bar that you push to unlock emergency exit, the smoke detectors, what kinds you use and the distances between them.

Adam Winig: You know, a lot of people hardly even look up and see these things and they just need to be there when an emergency happens.

Roman: Adam Winig and Daniel Scovill are architects. We work with them at Arcsine in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. Most of the time, when they’re working on fire safety, they’ll consult experts about where to place what kinds of architectural emergency devices. But there’s one safety device that they must design right into the building from the get-go. It’s impossible to ignore.

Daniel Scovill: As far as stair locations, such pretty important right from the start because it changes the whole dynamic of your space.

Roman: Typically, buildings require two fire stairs but it all depends on the size and purpose of the structure.

Adam: In architecture and building codes, you always need a certain number of exits or means of egress, so ways out of the building. And this fire escape, precariously bolted to the side of the building is one of our means of egress out of this space.

Avery Trufelman: And this is how 99% Invisible is going to escape our burning building.

Daniel: This is how Arcsine and 99% Invisible are going to escape our burning building.

Roman: In case of fire, Architects Daniel Scovill and Adam Winig and producer Avery Trufelman would put their steely resolve and athletic prowess to the test.

Avery: There this classic wrought iron fire escape right outside our window and I thought it was defunct, it was all rusty and stuff. But then I bothered to read the sign with the evacuation plan for our building.

Roman: Always read the evacuation plan.

Avery: Fire escapes are not allowed in new construction but because we are in a beautiful old brick building, the fire escape is actually one of our means of egress.

Sara Wermiel: We just speak of means of egress thinking of the whole route. The corridor and the stairs, and you think of an exit as being essentially, the door.

Avery: Professor Sara Wermiel, independent scholar and researcher at MIT.

Sara: One of my books is called, The Fireproof Building…. I can’t remember the subtitle! [laughs]

Roman: It’s the Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the 19th Century American Setting.

Avery: The single most dangerous thing for architecture historically is fire, and in the 1700s, if a fire did break out, there wasn’t a whole lot you can do about it. By that time there were fire fighters–

Roman: Whom you summoned by yelling loudly.

Avery: And they would come and they would bring you the fire escape.

Sara: It was a cart with a ladder on it. That was actually what the earliest fire escapes were.

Avery: So, fire escape methods started to get incorporated into architecture starting with the scuttle.

Sara: It looked like a skylight. It would have some kind of cover. It was like a trap door on the roof and then there would be a ladder to get up and out.

Avery: And so, in a fire, you would climb through the scuttle, out onto the roof, hop to your neighbor’s scuttle and crawl into their building which presumably hadn’t also caught fire.

Sara: That was the beginning, this idea that a city could require something for the sake of fire safety.

Avery: Around 1860, New York begins to require means of egress in tenement buildings.

Roman: Tenement buildings were tall, flammable, densely packed tinder boxes just full of families.

Avery: So of course, landlords went with the least expensive options.

Roman: The popular cheap fix was rope.

Sara: Ropes with baskets that you’re supposed to somehow, you now, the buildings on fire. You have your kid, you’re terrified, and you calmly open this little night stand, pull out the basket with ropes, set up the apparatus, strap yourself in, and somehow, lower yourself calmly to the ground. You know, it’s just preposterous.

Avery: There are these hilarious old advertisements for fake cabinets and hollow refrigerators and empty washing machines so that you can store your ropes and basket apparatus.

Roman: Because no one would notice that extra washing machine.

Avery: One engineer actually thought that instead of dispatching ropes from inside, archers could shoot the ropes up to the higher floors.

Sara: You know, people aren’t that athletic necessarily to begin with but second of all, it’s a fire. You know, this isn’t the best time to, like figure out how to lower yourself on a rope.

Avery: Another patent proposed individual parachutes hats with accompanying rubber shoes to break the fall. There are also these big slide fire escapes that were largely marketed to schools as both emergency devices and playground equipment.

Roman: There actually used to be a giant spiral slide to escape the Claremont Hotel right here in Oakland which would have made that place a whole lot better!

Sara: There were a lot of ideas but by 1870s fire escapes begin becoming something iron, something fixed to the building. Although by that point, they still weren’t anything great. They were like an iron platform outside of a window with straight ladders attached, or it might just be a straight ladder clamped to the wall.

Avery: In some cities, the external ladders angled and widened to become more like stairs. This was an improvement of course, but ultimately, fire escapes just didn’t suffice.

Roman: And it took a terrible tragedy to show this.

Sara: So the Asch Building in New York was built as a loft building and its owners represented it as being, you know, maybe for warehousing not necessarily for manufacturing.

Avery: Based on its dimensions, the Asch Building was required to have three means of egress but the developer insisted that the property would just be used as warehousing. So rather than three stairs, he was allowed to put in two stairs and a thin fire escape.

Roman: Then the owner rents the top three floors of the Asch Building to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

Sara: In March of 1911, there’s a fire in the building. It’s not known exactly how it begins and it spreads quickly.

Avery: The 10th floor has an exit to the roof. So, many of the 10th floor workers are able to survive by taking the stairs up.

Sara: And the workers on the 8th floor are by and large able to get out.

Roman: But workers on the 9th floor were trapped. The doors to the stairs opened inward and became blocked with bodies. And the stairs were backed up with workers exiting from the floors below. So, workers on the 9th floor couldn’t even get down. Only a few workers on this floor knew about the 10th floor exit and so they didn’t even tried to go upstairs.

Sara: There was a charge that one of the doors was locked and this wasn’t proved at the trial but I believe even if it had been, with all the people exiting from the 8th floor and the staircases were very narrow and winding, there just wasn’t the capacity.

Roman: Some workers tried to use the outside fire escape and it collapsed under the weight. It was from the windows of the 9th floor that many workers desperate to escape the flames and smoke fell or jumped to their deaths. 146 people lost their lives right in the middle of Greenwich Village. There were a lot of witnesses. It was horrible.

Avery: But the building was fine.

Sara: The Asch Building was a fireproof building. And of course, it’s still standing and it’s now part of New York University.

Roman: The Asch Building, now called The Brown Building, was well made, which is why at that time no one really thought it needed egress.

Avery: Exits and egress were problem, people thought for the tenements and the poorer quality buildings. The logic was if a building was first class, it was in and of itself, safe for the occupants and that the people could just be safely locked inside of these non-combustible buildings. The Triangle fire proved that architecture couldn’t protect us. We had to protect ourselves from architecture.

Sara: This is when an organization called the National Fire Protection Association does a lot of studies and thinking, about egress.

Roman: And good egress meant getting rid of fire escapes for so many reasons.

Avery: They weren’t commonly used, so they were often out of order in states of disrepair. In northern climates, they were covered with snow or eroded by rain and not everyone could access them like people with disabilities and the very young, and the elderly, and women who are hamstrung by the fashion of the time.

Sara: Women in these long skirts might not have the presence of mind to take off their skirts unless they could actually get out.

Roman: Also, fire escapes are scary. You see some narrow rickety staircases on really tall buildings that make you feel like you should strap on rubber shoes and a parachute hat.

Avery: And if people weren’t used to using fire escapes, they often didn’t know where they were.

Sara: People try to leave the way they came in, you know, that’s what they think of.

Roman: And that’s where modern fire escapes come in. They are not bolted to the side of the building. They are the logical place where you would go in an emergency. They are the stairs.

Avery: Well, they look like normal stairs but really they’re pieces of emergency equipment, enclosed in fireproof walls and sealed with a self closing door, and covered with sprinklers and alarms.

Sara: And because they work perfectly well as stairways, they’re often the stairway in a building. So the building won’t have the grand stairway any longer. It’ll have lots of elevators and the fire stairs.

Roman: Goodbye opulent lobbies with sweeping grand stairways.

Avery: If you like to take the stairs, you’ve probably already bemoaned the fact they are always shoved off into a tower and are very cold and industrial, no matter what the building looks like from the outside.

Adam: If we want we can make it look good but most clients elect to spend their money on things that people are going to see more.

Roman: Officemate and Architect Adam Winig again.

Adam: The stairways need to be what’s called rated, meaning they need to be enclosed in a type of construction that won’t melt or allow the fire to penetrate as quickly as a non-rated wall.

Roman: These rated towers can be like buildings within buildings. The prime example of a souped-up fire stairway is in Freedom Tower.

Elijah Huge: The Freedom Tower, which has this emergency core which is on it’s own separate electrical and plumbing system and has it’s own elevators and stairs.

Avery: That’s Elijah Huge. He’s a professor at Wesleyan University.

Elijah: And I’m also a practicing architect and I run a small firm called Periphery Projects, and part of that periphery involves doing research on architecture in emergency.

Roman: He’s particularly fascinated by these core structures around the fire stairs.

Avery: And these emergency cores are modeled with software and simulations dedicated solely to egress.

Elijah: This program, Exodus 4.0, I think there’s now Exodus 5.0, can simulate how quickly a floor of a building can be cleared based on the maximum number of bodies that would be allowed in the space, how quickly could those bodies exit the space.

Avery: So the architect or actually more likely, the consultant will plug in the measurements of a building, all the information about it’s emergency equipment, the maximum number of occupants, and basically a quick play, and watch the digital people escape the pixel flames.

Elijah: A lot of agent-based modelling programs with humans don’t work very well because humans don’t necessarily behave predictably but in emergencies they do. Given adequate signage, people will behave in predictable ways in the event of an emergency.

Avery: So this makes sense. We’ve already established that in an emergency, people don’t want to go places they haven’t gone to before, or use devices they’ve never seen, or figure out if they can catch a rope shot at them with a bow and arrow. The way egress works now is in keeping with the way that we use buildings normally.

Roman: Even though rated towers take up a lot of space and money and make for an unpleasant stepping experience, it’s hard to argue with this solution.

Sara: It’s paid off let’s say.

Avery: Sara Wermiel again.

Sara: For 2012, in non-residential structures, there were 65 deaths in the whole year. You know, probably more people were struck by lightning.

Roman: Actually 28 people were struck by lightning in 2012, but still, even though each one is a tragedy, 65 deaths doesn’t strike me as all that many. This number is already down from 2003, where there were 220 deaths in non-residential buildings. So these are the buildings with heavy regulations and core structures.

Avery: Modern emergency equipment in egress procedures are really helping to minimize the effects of fire accidents but from an aesthetic standpoint, it’s almost a pity because fire escapes are beautiful. And although I’m not really thrilled of the prospect of climbing down the fire escape outside my window, I do like to look at it.

Roman: And for Sara Wermiel, fire escapes, even the ones that are no longer in use are these physical reminder that we evolved passed being a culture that says, “Here’s a rope. Good luck, buddy!”

Sara: I just like seeing them and hope that they’ll be preserved because it just makes me realize how we kind of have to work together as a society. You have to rely on other people to put in the stairs, to follow the rules, for the rules to be there, and that’s what makes us safe.

[music track plays]

I am somewhere in the city, I am climbing up a fire escape
I am somewhere in the city, I am climbing up a fire escape
I have got to save my baby from a mess this world has made–

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Avery Trufelman with Sam Greenspan, Katie Mingle, and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced of the offices of Arcsine in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

  1. Chris

    Can you link to or post a picture of an accordion ladder fire escape?

    When Google Imaged two main types come up, 1. those that are permanent on the side of a build and are Z shaped (as see countless movies) and 2. those that are temporary and kind linear with an repeating X pattern.

    It would be interesting if it was the first one because you’ll always now that those films were shot in the bay area.

  2. Jay

    I never realized the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building was still around. That alone is somewhat shocking — it should have been torn down.

    Excellent article, thank you.

  3. Tom from Cupertino

    Funny, I’ve only the last few months been obsessed with finding the tallest (biggest drop to ground level) and highest (above sea level) fire stairs in downtown SF. Now that I heard the bit about accordion stairs I’m seeing them everywhere. Thank you for another delightful podcast.

  4. As a suburban child of the 80s, my introduction was, I suspect, hardly unique among your listeners: Sesame Street and Bugs Bunny. They were, of course, the Z-shaped stairs with the last flight hovering above the sidewalk. When I moved to San Francisco as an adult I immediately noticed the accordion escapes being different, but I never realized how unique they are. Any thoughts as to why they’re in the Bay Area and nowhere else, or why they seem to be the only variation in fire escapes?

  5. heyyoukid415

    Writing from the 17th floor of the federal building at 450 Golden Gate in San Francisco. We have several big, wide, well-lit, clean, sturdy staircases. Last year I worked in the public defender’s office down on Bryant, and…well, I’m glad it was only three stories so you could jump from a window if you really had to. Clearly there’s a direct relationship between budget and safety. I would send pics of our primo staircases, but I’m pretty sure that if I walk around taking photos of the various ways in and out I will end up spending my weekend answering a lot of questions in the homeland security office. Keep up the awesome work! Roman, are you still doing office hours?

  6. Japan actually still has slides for fire escape in schools. I can’t find the source anymore, but if I recall correctly any school with more than two floors here must have slides for fire escapes.

    And yea, they double as plain old fun slides during breaks.

  7. Danika Louise

    Who sings the song used in the end? “I am gone to the city, gonna climb a fire escape.”
    Pretty please and many thanks! Always a fan ;)

  8. “The way egress works now is in keeping with the way we use buildings normally.” Um… except that the onerous regulations that remove staircases from general use also mean no one knows where they are. In many cases, they are prohibited except in emergencies.

    I worked in one of the tallest buildings in San Francisco, and the FD came by to make sure we all knew how to evacuate. They did a quiz, and I was one of maybe 10% of the people on the floor who knew where the fire stairs were. And they weren’t even hidden! Right there, with a lit sign, next to the bathroom and supply closet where everyone stares at it all day.

    I know the WTC was built long ago, this disaster was a lifetime ago to many, and it was not thoroughly updated, but it is a useful case:

    Forced out through the 78th floor’s “sky lobby,” where express elevators go to the main lobby, a building employee “didn’t know” any other way down, said Heineman. Frantic, he discovered a second stairwell on the building’s east side, and continued downward…

    Almost all the escapes from above the impact zone were people who explored a bit (or followed others doing the same) and found another staircase they had never been aware of. Similar events are from other serious disasters, like cruise ship fires or capsizing, where emergency exits are not familiar so cannot be easily recalled or used during the emergency.

    Lest you think I disagree with fireproof stair towers, I just want there to also be regulations requiring they be open (unlocked) for general building traffic, and something to encourage/require they be readily discoverable, and easy to access.

  9. Philip

    There is a very imaginitive story titled “The Golden Age of Fire Escapes” It’s episodes 142 and 143 on

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