Why an Engineer?
An engineer will be able to 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 or she should also check the drop ladder that hooks on the second-floor landing of the fire escape to make sure it can be 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.
The Extent of Repairs
If the steel is badly deteriorated, however, the beams will need to be removed and replaced with new ones, which will require removing the brickwork or masonry around the joints where they penetrate the wall. All joints around penetrations should be caulked to keep water out. Water not only corrodes the beams and loosens the fire escape's supporting members but also damages the brickwork and allows 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 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 airborne 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.
At least once a year, the building's superintendent or maintenance staffer should walk down the entire length of the fire escape. Whoever is conducting this hands-on inspection 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 — anything that could be considered potentially unsafe. Don't put off minor repairs; over time, they accumulate and worsen until the fire escape is in need of extensive work to make it safe.
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