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Refurbishing a Fire Escape

By Stephen Varone, AIA and Peter Varsalona, PE

I'm a new member on the board of an eight-story cooperative, built around 1910 and located in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District. The fire escape on our building is in pretty bad shape: More than a few steps, slats, and railings are loose, and some are even missing, several of the anchorages into the building are also loose, and the metal is severely rusted throughout. Aside from it being a visual eyesore (the fire escape is on the front facade), it's a safety hazard if we have to use it in an emergency. Is it possible to repair the fire escape without replacing the whole assembly, and if so, what does it entail?

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Rust and peeling paint must be scraped off before repainting a fire escape.

You are right to be concerned about the risks of a dilapidated fire escape. Residents should have confidence that the fire escape provides them with a reliable means of exiting the building in an emergency. An unsafe fire escape is in violation of New York City Building Code, and your cooperative is subject to Buildings Department violations and penalties, not to mention it could be liable if anyone is injured.

When properly maintained, a fire escape should last as long as the building itself. The operative term, of course, is "properly maintained." Like any other exterior component of a building, a fire escape is exposed to the elements, and because it is typically made of metal, it is subject to rust and deterioration if neglected. But unless the fire escape as a whole is coming loose from the building, it's unlikely you need to install a new one. From your description of it, however, it sounds as if it will require extensive repair and refurbishment.

Checking for Instability

Your first step should be to have your building's engineer look at the fire escape—in particular the loose anchorages—to assess if it is structurally unsound. The engineer should note all bent, loose, or missing parts, such as steps (also called treads), railings, slats, bolts, the supporting steel beams or angles that attach into the face of the building, cracked or missing caulking or bricks around the penetrations, rust, flaking paint, and any sharp edges or pieces of metal. He should also check the condition of the drop ladder that hooks on the second-floor landing of the fire escape and is lowered to the ground so people can climb down safely.

Most fire escape repairs are straightforward: tightening loose bolts, welding, scraping, and painting. The most critical elements are the steel beams or angles that penetrate the building wall and provide structural support for the fire escape. If they show signs of wear, they may need a supporting angle or reinforcing plate welded to them for added support.

If the steel is badly deteriorated, however, the beams will need to be removed and replaced with new ones, which requires removing the brickwork or masonry around the joints where they penetrate the wall. All joints around penetrations should be caulked to keep water out. Not only will water corrode the beams and loosen the fire escape's supporting members, but it will also damage the brickwork and allow leaks to find their way into the building. Loose steps, railings, platform slats, handrails, and other metal pieces should likewise be bolted or welded as necessary.

Scraping and Painting

The more nettlesome and time-consuming task of refurbishing a fire escape is removing rust and old paint. Before new paint is applied, all rust must be scraped off as well as any loose, blistering, peeling, or flaking paint. If the fire escape has been painted over several times and the underlying paint wasn't properly removed, then sections of it may have to be scraped down to the bare metal. The metal is typically cleaned with a power washer and dried, and then a rust-inhibitive primer and enamel-based paint are applied. To keep the fire escape in uniform condition, it's recommended that the whole assembly be painted at one time rather than just portions of it.

Before the contractor starts removing paint, however, the board will need to hire an environmental firm to test the paint for lead and asbestos. If either one of these materials is found, then you will be required by New York City law to undertake an extensive—and often expensive—lead and/or asbestos abatement project. That entails hiring a lead/asbestos abatement firm, which must follow strict OSHA rules, such as using a wet-based removal method instead of dry scraping (which produces air-borne particles) and sealing all windows to prevent hazardous dust or residue from entering apartments. If the paint doesn't contain lead or asbestos, the contractor can use standard paint stripping methods with the usual precautions.

Refurbishing your fire escape will not require a work permit from the Department of Buildings unless more than 10 square feet or four linear feet of masonry are being replaced. However, because your building is in a New York City–designated Historic District, you will need to obtain a permit from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The LPC will want to make certain that the fire escape is painted in an historically accurate color.

Unsafe Conditions

Once your fire escape has been refurbished, it's important to have it inspected on a regular basis. As part of the building's exterior, maintaining fire escapes in sound condition is mandated under the Building Code and New York City Local Law 11/98. So at a bare minimum, every five years an engineer or architect performing the Local Law 11/98 facade inspection on your building should look for any unsafe conditions on the fire escapes. Considered unsafe are any items or debris on the fire escape, such as flower pots, blocks or bricks (e.g., used to secure window air conditioners), personal items, or anything that could fall from the fire escape or obstruct egress.

Keep in mind that the Local Law 11/98 inspection is visual and that it's not always possible to detect less obvious unsafe items, such as a loose step or railing. It's therefore recommended that at least once a year the building's superintendent or maintenance staffer walk down the entire length of the fire escape to conduct a hands-on inspection. They should step on every step, grip the railings, feel for sharp edges, and look for rust and corrosion, loose connections to the building, and missing steps, railings, and slats—i.e., anything that could be considered potentially unsafe. Don't ignore minor repairs: Over time they accumulate and worsen, until the fire escape is in need of dire work to make it safe.

A few other things to remember: Residents cannot block a window that is the only means of egress to the fire escape. Window air conditioners cannot extend so far out on a fire escape that they block egress. And the building cannot have an awning, fixture, or other obstacle that obstructs the fire escape drop ladder from reaching the ground.

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.

Stephen Varone, AIA is president and Peter Varsalona, PE is principal of RAND Engineering & Architecture, DPC. This column was originally published in the July/August 2008 issue of Habitat Magazine.

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