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The History of the Fire Escape

After an 1860 fire in New York City, officials passed a law requiring “fireproof balconies on each story on the outside of the building, connected by fireproof stairs,” but landlords were resistant to the idea, stating that these stairs would be expensive and unattractive. A few years later, the law was relaxed to simply state that provisions needed to be made for how people would escape in the case of a fire. This led to a variety of patents for devices designed to help tenants escape a fire, including ladders that ran along the exteriors of buildings, rope ladders with anchors, and even parachute-like headgear. The laws for public buildings were revised again in the 1870s and specified that all public buildings must have a fire escape system. Still, many landlords and hotel owners resisted. In 1887, Anna Connelly patented a landmark invention — a light but sturdy railed bridge that could be installed on the upper floors or rooftops between buildings, allowing tenants living on higher floors to escape by moving upwards (most fires at the time started on the lower floors, where commercial businesses were usually located) and then across to an adjacent, hopefully safe building. Notably, many of the patent applications for fire escapes were filed by women — between 1877 and 1895 alone, women received 33 patents for various fire escape designs. Various types of fire escape systems were tested, including tubular chutes in the 1930s. Eventually, the exterior fire escapes we are familiar with today caught on. However, since they weren’t constantly in use, tenants found alternative ways to make use of the space. Before air conditioning, people often slept outside on their fire escapes to keep cool. They also used the space for drying clothes and growing plants. Today, exterior fire escapes remain a key safety feature of many public buildings, and taller, newer public buildings often have interior fire stairs to help occupants make it to a safer floor and out of the building during an emergency.

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