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How safe are New York City fire escapes?

Fire escapes have been part of the landscape of New York City since the mid-19th century. Even people who've never been to New York have seen them playing memorable "roles" in classic films including West Side Story and Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The structural soundness of these fire escapes, however, can vary greatly. One longtime New York architect says, "I do everything I can to not stand out on a fire escape. I will look out at it from the window. But you would really have to talk me into it…." That's not an irrational fear. People have been injured and fallen to their deaths when a fire escape broke while they were on it.

Since external fire escapes stopped being constructed in New York City back in 1968, any that you encounter are older than that – perhaps a century older. The original ones were made of wrought iron, while the "newer" ones were constructed with steel, which makes them more durable.

Under New York law, all external fire escapes on buildings with at least six-and-a-half stories must be inspected by a licensed engineer or architect every five years. Owners of smaller buildings aren't held to that requirement, although they are responsible for keeping their buildings safe. As an engineer with the NYC Department of Buildings Investigative Engineering Services says, "Essentially, every building should constantly be safe. That's not always the case, obviously."

If those words leave you feeling less than confident about venturing out on to a fire escape to get a look at the night sky, watch a parade pass by or tend to a small garden, the engineer also notes, "If you just want to look at the data, we have fewer than two incidents [of fire escapes breaking] per year that end up in either injury or fatality." She recommends calling 311 if you spot a potential problem.

While some people, like the architect we mentioned, would like to see fire escapes removed, others believe they are still an important safety feature for escaping fires. Still others believe that part of the city's architectural history would be removed along with them.

If you or a loved one has suffered injuries due to a broken or faulty fire escape, it's wise to seek legal guidance to help determine who can and should be held liable. Then you can seek the compensation you need and deserve.

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