Fire Escape and Fire Balcony Inspections: New Philadelphia Code Requirement for all Buildings Alan Jalón, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, Regional Vice President, The Falcon Group
Fire escapes have played an important role in the urban development of many American cities, such as New York and Philadelphia. They have been used by residents for many different functions including informal balconies, gardening and planting areas, sun bathing and as a vehicle for neighborly interactions. Fire escapes have been romanticized in popular culture by plays like “A West Side Story” and more recently have even been included in kid’s movies such as “The Secret Life of Pets.” Over the past century, fire escapes have truly interwoven themselves into our everyday life. Fire escapes, usually attached to the outside of a building, can be made of various materials, but most commonly, they are constructed of metal. Regardless of the construction or the attachment to the building, the main purpose of fire escape is to provide a safe means of egress in the event of a fire or other life-threatening event.
Many cities in the United States require inspections for fire escapes. In 2017, Philadelphia joined the growing list of cities that require such inspections. The Philadelphia Fire Code, section F-1011, outlines the requirements for fire escape and fire balcony inspections. The intent of the inspection is to confirm the structural integrity and safe operation of the fire escape and balcony. Life safety is the biggest concern and the code was written after Philadelphia experienced a fatal fire escape collapse. The code defines a fire escape as “a system of metal landings, balconies, stairs or ladders attached to a building that are not classified as an exterior stairway and are intended or designed to aid in egress from a building in an emergency.” A fire escape balcony is defined as “a balcony that projects from the building face and is intended for use in conjunction with a fire escape, an exit stair or an area of refuge.” While we typically see metal fire escapes attached to a building, a fire escape and fire balcony may be constructed of other materials such as concrete and wood. Regardless of what material and how it is attached to a building, they must be inspected every five (5) years in accordance with the Philadelphia Fire Code.
According to the code, the owner of a building with a fire escape or fire escape balcony is responsible for retaining a Professional Structural Engineer to conduct the inspection. In order for the fire escape or fire balcony to pass and be declared “safe” it must meet or exceed the loading requirement of 100 pound per square foot, as described in the code. This must be demonstrated by an engineering analysis or load test conducted in the presence of the Structural Engineer. A load test is conducted by simply putting the required weight, which may be in the form of several sand bags, on the escape and holding it for a prescribed amount of time. If the fire escape or fire balcony does not meet the loading requirements it must be repaired and refurbished to meet the structural loading requirement.
There are several factors that the Structural Engineer must consider and evaluate prior to giving the fire escape and fire balcony a passing grade or performing a load test. Most engineers will prequalify the fire escape for a load test, but this is not always necessary. However, some form of structural evaluation, whether it be an engineering analysis, load test, refurbishment or repair, must be completed in order to confirm that the fire escape meets the loading requirements as described in the code. If original hardware is noted, which is usually observed as square bolts and washers, the engineer may not qualify the escape or balcony as “safe” or perform a load test until the hardware has been upgraded. The status and maintenance of fire escape must be noted and recorded. This may include the quality of coatings, such as paint, and the integrity of the hardware and fasteners. Some fire escapes and fire balconies have been around for several decades. If not properly maintained, it is difficult for a Structural Engineer to provide an engineering analysis on fasteners and hardware that have been exposed to the elements for a prolonged period of time. Thus the engineer might have reservations on conducting a load test due to the risk of damage to the fire escape or building façade. It is important to note that when the fire escape or fire balcony is undergoing repairs, it may temporarily prohibit the use of the fire escape or fire balcony for the occupants. It is necessary to establish an alternate and safe means of egress for the occupants during the repairs. The building’s egress should never be reduced during maintenance or repairs.
The first inspection as required by the code is due July 1, 2017. A summary report which states whether the fire escape or fire balcony meets the loading criteria or fails to meet it must be filed within three months of the inspection. A failure will require the building owner to take prompt action to bring the fire escape to code standards and provide the required means of egress for the building. If not, the building may be in jeopardy of losing its certificate of occupancy because it does not provide a safe means of egress for all of the building occupants.
After the initial inspection, subsequent inspections will be required at a five (5) year interval which is similar to façade inspections. However, it is important to understand that the façade inspection and fire escape and fire balcony inspections are separate inspections. While the same professional may conduct both inspections, the city of Philadelphia requires two different submission forms. Once the fire escape or fire balcony has been deemed “safe”, the engineer must post on the fire escape or balcony a weather resistant placard containing the date of the inspection and the engineer’s information. Furthermore, the intent of the façade inspection is to reduce the liability of façade components falling off the building, while the fire escape and fire balcony inspection is to ensure that fire escapes and fire balconies are able to fully support the weight of the occupants during an emergency.
Over the past century, fire escapes have interwoven themselves into our urban development and have provided backdrops to movies, plays and our lives. Their main purpose is to provide a safe way to exit buildings in the event of an emergency. Over time, they have been forgotten in regards to maintenance and repairs increasing liability and the potential for loss of life. To this end, Philadelphia has joined various other jurisdictions, and has implemented the Fire Escape and Fire Balcony Inspection Code requirement to ensure that they provide the structural integrity necessary to safely support exiting occupants during an emergency.
About the Author
Mr. Alan Jalón is the Regional Vice President │ Philadelphia Department Head at the firm with over a decade of experience in architectural design, sustainable design and building envelope consultation. He has a professional degree in architecture and a Master’s of Science in Sustainable Design and has worked on projects in North and South America. His practice is focused on architecture, sustainability and envelope consulting, façade inspection and engineering of mid to high-rise buildings in Philadelphia and surrounding areas. Mr. Jalón is responsible for business development and project management from inception through construction. His involvement throughout the various phases of design and construction allow him to provide clients with the best possible results. Mr. Jalón’s multifarious building knowledge enables him to note deficiencies in existing construction and recognize potential issues in new construction. His ability to achieve appropriate construction solutions further enables his client to enhance their building investment. Mr. Jalón actively volunteers with high school students interested in architecture and engineering through various organizations such as PhilaNOMA, the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organizations of Minority Architects, and the AIA, American Institute of Architects.