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A Brief Look at How Emergency Exits and Egress Developed Over the Years

Nowadays, people might take emergency doors and exits for granted; after all, they’re so commonplace that it’s hard to think of a building without an emergency exist! That wasn’t always the case, though.

Buildings today must have effective means of egress, proper emergency exit systems that include doors, corridors, stairwells, and routes to get people out quickly and safely in the event of an emergency. Depending on the size and use of the building, it must meet certain safety codes and regulations, too.

To put it simply, buildings need emergency doors and exits. Common sense, right? It might surprise you to learn that this wasn’t always the case. Like any technology or behaviour, emergency exits had to be developed.

Let’s take a look at the history behind emergency doors and exits!

A Brief History of Fire Escapes

For as long as homes have been threatened by fire, there’s been a need for emergency response and means of egress. In fact, firefighting as a profession dates back to the year 6 AD, in Imperial Rome!

By the 1700s, it was common for those trapped by a fire to call out to firemen to rescue them with the latest means of egress: a ladder and cart that could quickly be set up to help people get out safely. Shortly after, the scuttle was invented, a skylight-like hatch in a home’s ceiling that let people escape to their roof. From there, they could jump onto their neighbour’s roof and climb down their scuttle to get out of a fire.

The scuttle soon became standard for all homes, and was eventually a mandatory addition for building design.

Not all fire escapes were as thought-out, though. Some of the more absurd ideas in the 19th century included:

  • Ropes and baskets disguised as home appliances that people could use to lower themselves to safety from their apartment or upper level;
  • Trained archers, who would fire arrows with ropes attached into upper storeys for people to climb down; and
  • Parachute hats and rubber shock-absorbing shoes for people in higher levels to literally jump out of their window to safety.

Thankfully, sanity prevailed, and heavy iron staircases became the norm for fire escape safety. Unfortunately, construction quality varied heavily, and a tragic fire in New York City in 1911 saw the only fire escape on a building collapse under the weight of people trying to escape.

While these external fire escapes still exist, their quality has vastly improved. Events such as this also illustrated the need for safer emergency exits and means of egress.

Emergency Doors and Exits Today

In the event of a fire or another emergency, people instinctively go out the way they came in. When panicked, people won’t think of using new and unusual routes to escape. This is another reason why iron fire escapes are ineffective. People need familiarity when they are scared, so exiting through a stairwell is the best fire escape plan.

Fire stairs are the modern means of egress in large buildings, built with sprinklers, alarms, fire-proof walls, and emergency doors that can open in both directions. To meet building safety codes, architects will now use software to determine if the fire stairs will work for the maximum number of people in a building.

The software also considers human behaviour in a state of panic—which is usually people running for the stairs. These exit designs ensure that everyone will know where to go and how to get out of a building safely.

Emergency exits have come a long way to become a safe and efficient way to escape danger and save lives.

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