Reviewed by Chuck Roydhouse
Updated September 11, 2023
When I think back to childhood visits to my grandparents, I always remember the fire escape attached to their old, brick apartment building. It was a wrought iron monster of a contraption, starting at the top floor and running down the side of the building, fit with suspended ladders that would lower a person to the floor below once it felt their weight. The fire escape seemed quaint and old-fashioned, but was actually a vital escape route in the event of a fire in the building.
Escape options are important in the event of a house fire, too, but most homes don’t come conveniently equipped with fire escapes. It’s up to you, the homeowner, to provide a safe way out of the house. A portable fire escape ladder is the ideal tool for fleeing to safety quickly.
Ideally, there should be more than one escape route from each room in the home. More often than not, one of those routes is going to be through a window. If it’s a window on the second storey (or higher), you’re going to need an escape ladder.
Fire escape ladders are similar to boat ladders; they are generally made of aluminum or hard plastic and have rigid bars for rungs. They can be either permanent or portable.
Permanent systems are built into the house or attached to it and can be activated with a lever in the bedroom. They are more expensive than portable ladders and require installation, so they are less common.
Portable fire escape ladders fold up and can be stored in their original box or in a drawer or container. The upper portion of the ladder attaches to a windowsill and the rungs are dropped out the window along the side of the house. Each room on the upper floors of your home should have its own escape ladder.
Before purchasing escape ladders, take these important features into consideration:
Length. Fire escape ladders come in two standard lengths: 15 feet and 25 feet. Choose the length according to which storey the ladder will serve.
Strength. A good fire escape ladder should bear loads of up to 1,000 pounds.
Size. Be sure that the ladder fits the window in which it will be used. Some models are adjustable, but be sure to measure the width of your windows before shopping.
Ease of use. If possible, try various models to see which is easiest to use. In the event of a fire, you will need to move quickly, so those that unfurl without much fuss have an advantage.
Standoffs. No, we’re not talking about Wild West shootouts here! Standoffs are protrusions that hold the escape ladder away from the wall of the house, which is important when a fire may be increasing the temperature of that wall. They also help to keep the ladder steady. Good ladders include standoffs.
Anti-slip. For children and adults with mobility issues, anti-slip rungs are key features.
Storage. Check to be sure that the ladder of your choice is easy to store and doesn’t take up too much space.
Heat resistance. Some models of fire escape ladders use nylon rope, which can be susceptible to melting at high temperatures. Be certain that the components of your ladder are heat resistant.
Reusability. There are inexpensive fire escape ladders on the market that are only good for a single use. Since it’s important to practice using your ladder, this isn’t ideal.
Testing. Check to see that your ladder has been tested by an independent certification organization, such as Underwriters Laboratories.
Price. Prices for fire escape ladders vary. Don’t simply buy the cheapest option unless it contains the key features noted above. However, if affordability is a real problem, any ladder is certainly better than none.
Once you purchase your ideal fire escape ladders, don’t sit back and rest on your laurels. You need to be sure that they are stored near the necessary windows in each of the rooms that has one. Be sure that each designated window actually opens and that everyone knows how to unlock and open these windows in the event of an emergency.
You also need to be sure that every member of the family practices using the ladders. Young children should practice from a first-floor window under your supervision. Make these practice sessions part of a family fire drill.
If you don’t yet have a family escape plan for your home or conduct annual fire drills, it’s never too late to do so. The more that everyone practices for a potential fire emergency, the better prepared they will be and their reactions during an actual fire will be quicker and more automatic.
Each room in the building should have at least two possible escape routes, which means there should be a fire escape ladder installed in each room on the second storey and higher. This allows anyone in the room to escape through the window if the door is unsafe to use.
Many fire escape ladders cost around $100. You can find cheaper and more expensive options, but as with any safety equipment, it’s not always worth it to buy the cheapest model.
A good fire escape ladder should be able to handle 450 kg, or about 1,000 lbs. This is enough to allow multiple people to use the ladder at once without worry of overloading it.
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About the expert: Chuck Roydhouse
Chuck Roydhouse is a retired professional firefighter, owner of Clean Sweep of Anne Arundel County, and President of CSIA (Chimney Safety Institute of America). He has a degree in Fire Science & Safety from Shepherd University and 25 years of experience as a career firefighter. Chuck has been serving the chimney industry for 30 years as a CSIA Master Chimney Sweep.
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