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 just 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 façade), 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?
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 Department of Buildings violations and penalties, and it could also be liable if anyone is injured.
When properly maintained, a fire escape should last as long as the building itself. The operative phrase is “if properly maintained.” Like any other exterior component, a fire escape is exposed to the elements, and because it is typically made of metal, it is subject to rust and deterioration. But unless the fire escape as a whole is coming loose, it’s unlikely you need to install a new one. From your description, however, it sounds as if it will require extensive repair and refurbishment.
Your first step should be to have your 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 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.
The more nettlesome and time-consuming task in this area 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. This is typically cleaned with a power- washer and dried, and then a rust-inhibitive primer and enamel-based paint are applied. To keep everything 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 doing that, 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 federal 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 ten square feet or four linear feet of masonry is 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 (LPC). The LPC will want to make certain that the fire escape is painted in a historically accurate color.
Once this is done, have regular inspections. 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 façade inspection on your building should look for any unsafe conditions on the fire escapes. Considered unsafe are any items or debris on the platforms, such as flower pots, blocks or bricks (e.g., used to secure window air conditioners), personal items, or anything that could fall or obstruct entering or exiting.
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 structure 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 extensive work to make it safe.
A few other things. Residents cannot block a window that is the only way of getting to the fire escape. Window air conditioners cannot extend so far out that they block egress. And the building cannot have an awning, fixture, or other obstacle obstructing the drop ladder from reaching the ground.
A fire escape is a critical part of a building’s emergency plans. You hope you will never have to use it, but if you do, it needs to be ready and reliable.