The Case Against Single-Exit-Stairwell Buildings

May 21, 2024
Greg Rogers and Sean DeCrane provide the arguments for fire service members to use to send a strong message to state legislators that compromising safety for dubious gains associated with single-exit stairwells isn't acceptable.

In the ongoing discourse that surrounds fire safety standards, allowing single-exit stairwells for mid-rise buildings has emerged as a contentious issue. Advocates argue for adopting this approach to streamline construction and reduce costs, particularly in the realm of affordable housing. However, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) stand in staunch opposition to this proposal, asserting that it compromises the safety of both occupants and firefighters.

What follows are the multifaceted implications of single-exit stairwells, drawing upon research, practical considerations and the experiences of fire service professionals.

Aesthetics over safety
At the heart of the debate lies the tension between aesthetic design and public safety. Currently, numerous states are considering legislation that would permit an end-around on the safety requirements in the national consensus building code process. This would permit residential occupancies, hotels, motels, condominiums and dormitories, among others, to incorporate one stairwell instead of a minimum of two and raise building height to six stories. The current safety standards require two means of egress when these occupancies are built taller than three stories.

Proponents of single-exit stairwells argue that the concept offers a solution to high housing prices and promotes innovative architectural design. However, fire service organizations contend that such concessions never should come at the expense of public safety. Although creativity in construction is commendable, it must not compromise the fundamental principle of protecting human life. The fire service emphasizes that aesthetics should complement, rather than supersede, life-safety requirements that are outlined in established building codes.

Firefighting operations
Central to the IAFC and IAFF’s opposition to single-exit stairwells is the single-exit stairwell’s detrimental effect on firefighting operations. Dual staircases are pivotal in facilitating efficient firefighting strategies, including staged hose deployment and controlled evacuation routes. In contrast, single-exit stairwells present formidable challenges to firefighters, including hindering their ability to combat fires effectively and to evacuate occupants safely. This potentially places firefighters in a very challenging position. Do they delay fire suppression operations to evacuate occupants? Do they remove occupants via ground and/or aerial ladders and commence suppression operations? Do they ask residents to remain in place? Each of these options increases risks to the occupant and to firefighters, because fleeing occupants and firefighting operations won’t occur safely or efficiently in the same stairwell.

Single-exit stairwells only introduce unnecessary risks and significantly jeopardize the safety of both responders and those who they seek to protect: the people who are the occupants of the building.

Proponents of the single stairwell have highlighted the capability of the fire service to evacuate occupants through the deployment of ground and aerial ladders as an option for a secondary means of egress. However, as firefighters, we understand that deploying and using any ladder on an emergency scene increases risks. Even firefighters who trained on and used ladders throughout their career are at risk of falling from the ladder and at increased risk of being struck by falling debris from the building that’s on fire. Introducing onto a ladder an occupant who has no training, who is under duress and who potentially is compromised by exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide invites disaster.

The photographs on this page and the next are examples of what currently meets code. The thought is to add floors to the buildings to make them look like that which is depicted in the photograph on the preceding page but still only having a single-egress stairwell.

Space of stairwells
Claims that are made that single-exit stairwells offer substantial space savings are debunked on closer examination. Practical assessments reveal that the space that’s required to incorporate secondary staircases is minimal compared with the footprint of the overall building. Arguments that suggest significant space gains to be used for additional dwelling units haven’t been substantiated with comparative design proposals.

The negligible effect of exit stairwells on usable floor space should be underscored, and the importance of prioritizing safety over short-term cost considerations should be emphasized.

Previous research
Previous research and articles provide valuable insights into the importance of dual staircases for effective emergency response. Designating one stairwell for evacuation and the other for firefighting operations enhances efficiency and safety during emergencies. Single-exit stairwells lack this crucial capability, compromising both occupant evacuation and firefighting efforts. Relying on ground and aerial ladders as a second means of egress also further delays the ability of occupants to egress safely under emergency conditions.

This kind of proposal also fails to consider the fire load and types of fires that the fire service sees today (e.g., large amounts of plastic materials, lithium-ion batteries and micromobility devices).

History has demonstrated the hazards when an occupancy has a means of egress that’s compromised.

On 9/11, efforts by FDNY to ascend stairs were challenging as the building’s occupants utilized a narrowed stairwell to evacuate the building.

London’s Grenfell Tower was built with a single stairwell. With the failure of multiple building safety designs, the stairwell served as the fire brigade’s point of operations and the primary means of egress for occupants who couldn’t use a protection-in-place strategy. Seventy-two people died.

These are examples from high-rise buildings, but incidents in Philadelphia and New York City also highlight loss-of-life incidents that involved one stairwell in mid-rise buildings.

A nonfire event in Chicago resulted in 21 deaths when the occupants of a nightclub tried to exit using one stairwell after a security guard used pepper spray. This caused panic throughout the crowd.

Fire and other emergencies can result in loss of life if there is only one exit, but an additional lesson is that building systems fail. Buildings can’t be designed with a reliance on one protection feature. Buildings must be designed with secondary safety features to protect the occupants and responders.

The fire service unequivocally should oppose the adoption of single-exit-stairwell buildings. The IAFC and IAFF urge state governments and legislators to uphold existing fire safety standards, which mandate multiple means of egress for mid-rise buildings. Retaining secondary exits is essential to ensure firefighter safety, occupant evacuation and effective fire response. Furthermore, the IAFC and IAFF advocate for adherence to established building codes, which follow a consensus process that’s recognized by the American National Standards Institute that emphasizes the importance of public safety in all decision-making processes.

Further discussions should highlight the potential consequences of proposed legislative changes. Although aimed at reducing housing costs, such changes inadvertently could increase construction expenses and compromise fire safety standards. The need for informed decision-making and collaborative engagement with stakeholders to safeguard community welfare should be emphasized.

By advocating for measures that balance the need for fire safety and appropriate building design, stakeholders can ensure the well-being of both occupants and emergency responders.

Lessons learned
The IAFC and IAFF reaffirm their unwavering commitment to advocating for fire safety standards that prioritize the protection of lives and property. Single-exit stairwells represent a dangerous departure from established norms, with far-reaching implications for occupant and firefighter safety.

By upholding rigorous building codes and resisting the allure of expediency, stakeholders can ensure that buildings stand as bastions of security, safeguarding the welfare of all who inhabit them.

Let us heed the lessons of the past and prioritize safety above all else, for in doing so, we honor the legacy of those who have dedicated their life to protecting others.

We urge all fire service members and representatives to send a strong message to their state legislators that compromising safety for dubious gains isn’t acceptable.

About the Author

Greg Rogers

Greg Rogers serves as chair of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Fire and Life Safety Section. He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology with an emphasis on fire protection and safety and a master’s degree in leadership and management from Western Governors University. Rogers started his career as an instructor in 1992 at the Oklahoma State University Fire Service Training Center. He then worked at the North Metro Fire Rescue District in Broomfield, CO, and at South Kitsap Fire and Rescue in Port Orchard, WA. Rogers then became fire marshal of fire prevention with the Spokane Valley, WA, Fire Department.

About the Author

Sean DeCrane

Sean DeCrane is the director of health and safety operational services for the IAFF. Previously, he was a research engineer associate for UL Solutions’ fire R&D team. DeCrane served as a 25-plus-year veteran of the Cleveland Division of Fire, including serving as director of training and chief of operations.

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