Nothing succeeds like Egress


The fire exit sign.


  • Why are fire exits important?
  • The history of fire exits.
  • How does a building become fireproof?
  • Why is reading the evacuation plan important?

Hey guys, I am from Pune. One of the reasons I love this city is the rich history it carries. You can see it in the castles, massive heritage structures and ancient buildings. Oddly enough, the one thing that came to my mind while visiting many of these places is the fire exits! You’ll see how.

Shaniwar Wada is one of the oldest structures in Pune. As of now, only a few remnants can be found at the place where a massive castle once stood. The reduction from a splendid castle to remnants happened on 27 February 1828, when a great fire started inside the palace. It is said that the conflagration fueled by the wooden structural components raged for seven days straight. Many people lost their lives in this incident. This shows how essential fire exits are.

In this article, we are going to learn step by step about fire exits or emergency egresses. Let’s get into the history, the bad designs, standardisation and to the future.

History of crazy inventions

Historically, fires have been the biggest threat to architecture. Architecture eventually evolved to resist it. Back in the 18th century, the best a building occupant could do if a fire broke out was shout. They would specifically shout to the firemen, who would bring a fire escape cart with them. This fire escape was just a cart with a ladder on it.

Houghton's fire escape
One of the earliest fire escapes.

Speaking of how architecture evolved to fight a fire, there was an invention called scuttle. Imagine a skylight on the roof, and now attach a ladder to it: you have a scuttle. This ladder would allow one to go to the top, then jump to the neighbour’s roof and then climb down using their scuttle. Pretty safe! It became mandatory to install scuttle in new constructions. When any apartment was built, another egress was to be installed to let the tenants escape a fire. The landlords preferred the least expensive option: the rope.

Lescale's fire escape
Lescale's fire escape (With a cabinet disguised for the rope.) source

Ropes with baskets attached to the end were introduced so that people can lower themselves to the ground. There were even advertisements of empty cabinets which would look like a washing machine or a refrigerator to contain a pulley, and the rope kept in it.

The patent with the parachute hats and rubber shoes.
The patent with parachute hats and rubber shoes.

One engineer actually thought of shooting ropes to the roof to get to the higher floors like an archer in such situations. There were parachute hats and rubber shoes to break the fall in case a tenant had to jump from one’s apartment. (There’s a patent on it.) Fire escapes were introduced in schools as both emergency egress and playground equipment. There were slides installed from a higher floor to get down.

The Tragedy

By the 1870s, fire escapes had become permanent iron structures. Some were angled ladders, and some were straight. The angled ladders looked like contemporary stairs. But in case of an actual disaster like Shaniwar Wada, there was no chance these fire escapes would suffice. New York’s Asch building is one such example.

The Asch Building was constructed under the name of “fireproof” in 1900-01. It was designed by John Woolley and named after the owner Joseph Asch. The building needed three means of egress, but the developer insisted the property would be for warehousing— this led to having two staircases and a narrow fire escape. The tag of fireproof had attracted many people to this building with one particular Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

The Asch Building Fire
The Asch Building under fire

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out and spread quickly. The workers on the tenth floor were able to survive, thanks to the access to stairs to the roof. Similarly, workers on the eighth floor took the stairs down to escape. But the workers on the ninth floor were trapped. Only a few people who knew about the easy access from the tenth floor went upstairs. The narrow escape added fuel to the fire and created a bottleneck for people to escape.

Some people tried using the fire escape outside, but it collapsed under their weight. Many people from the ninth floor, desperate to escape the smoke and flames, fell or jumped to their deaths. Almost 146 people died. Most of them were women.

The Asch Building fire escape.
The Asch Building fire escape.

However, the building was fine after the fire, being a “fireproof” structure. This misleading tag was what led to the belief of the Asch building not needing egress. The building is now called the Brown Building and is now a part of New York University.

The Asch Fire Aftermath
The Asch Fire Aftermath

The Problems

As seen in the previous example, the fire exits didn’t work. One of the problems would be the lack of usage of them. The lack of use or maintenance lead to the egress being in conditions of disrepair or eroded by elements. But even if they were in good condition, people with disabilities couldn’t use them. Other people who couldn’t use them were the young, the elderly and women, who were stuck in their long skirts.

One of the biggest problems was that people simply didn’t know how to use egress. (Always read the emergency evacuation plan of the building you usually visit.)

The Solution and the Future

People preferred to leave the building the same way they entered. So the modern fire escapes are designed for this logic. They are the stairs. Or actually, they look like stairs but even store pieces of emergency equipment. These are enclosed in fireproof walls, sealed with self-closing doors and covered in alarms and sprinklers. As the fire escape stairs work correctly, they’re often the stairway in the building. The other entry becomes the elevator.

An Industrial fire escape
An Industrial fire escape

Today, egresses or fire stairways need to be rated. This means that they need to be enclosed in a construction that will not melt or will not allow a fire to penetrate as a non-rated wall would. This is one of the reasons; the fire exits look industrial even if the building looks modern. The rated egress can be modelled with software like Exodus. It allows architects to give the measurements of the building, emergency equipment, maximum number of occupants and then run the software.

Your turn now

Rated egress look ugly, space-consuming, expensive but they save a lot of lives. There is a significant decrease in fatalities due to the design of adequate egress. But even though they look bad, there is something beautiful about them. It is a physical reminder of how we have moved on from a culture that used to say, “Here you go buddy, take a rope and jump for your life!”

This week in invisible history

The clue in last week’s article was “First female US transcontinental pilot.” Many of you guessed Amelia Earhart, but it was wrong.

On 5th October 1930, Laura Ingalls (1901-1967) was the first woman to make a transcontinental airplane flight departing from Roosevelt Field, New York. She flew her D.H. Gipsy Moth bi-plane to Grand Central Air Terminal, Glendale, Cal; making nine stops and arriving four days later. She logged 30 hrs 27 mins of flying time. On 18th October 1930, she made the return flight in the shorter time of 25 hrs 35 mins. Earlier in 1930, she established the Women's Loop record over Lambert-St. Louis Field on 4th May with 344 loops which she bettered on 26th May at Muskogee, Okla by making 980 consecutive continuous loops in 3:40. By 13th August, she had also established the world barrel-roll record for men and women of 714 rolls over Lambert-St. Louis Field.

Laura Ingalls.
Laura Ingalls.

Again Radhika Oguri gave the right answer after guessing Amelia Earhart.

The clue for this week is: The universal meridian. The domain is Geography. This time it is very simple. You can google the term and learn something amazing. Inspired? Do write to us with your answers to get featured in the next article. Or send in your suggestions to make your weekend read absolutely amazing!

See you next weekend. Have a good one!


  1. Reddit:r/theinvisiblegenius
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  3. Twitter: @notnitinchopra

Reference links

  1. Fire, Panic and a Locked Main Exit (
  2. Fire Safety Signs: The Law and Their Meaning | City Fire Protection
  3. The big red word, the little green man, and the international war over exit signs.


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