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5 things you might not know about your NYC fire escape

Legally, you can sit or stand on a fire escape, but the fire department really doesn't want you out there. Accidents can happen.

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Fire escapes are a quintessential part of the city’s landscape, used by New Yorkers for a place to sit outside, hang clothes to dry, and even grow some plants. In the Covid era, you might be even more inclined to make the most of your outdoor perch, but there are few dos and don'ts you should know about.

First, here’s a little history on fire escapes in NYC: They were initially installed in the 1860s after several fatal tenement fires. After the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the city tightened building codes, requiring fire escapes to be made from wrought-iron and be properly secured to buildings.

Today, the Department of Buildings is in charge of fire escapes, including what they’re made of, how wide they are, and how they are attached. Your lease also might outline what you can and cannot do on your fire escape.

Here are five things you might not know about your NYC fire escape, including why you probably shouldn’t hang out there this summer.

It's not meant to be a balcony

Many New Yorkers go out on their fire escape, especially since private outdoor space is hard to come by here. Legally, you can sit or stand on a fire escape, but you should think twice before you set up your home office out there. And the fire department really doesn't want you or your stuff there either. The FDNY’s residential safety guide says you should keep your fire escape clear of obstructions at all times. Accidents do happen often: Last month, a man who was thought have gone out onto his fire escape for a smoke fell to his death.

Your AC unit can’t block it

If you’re like most New Yorkers, you use a window AC unit, but if your window leads to a fire escape, it can be a little tricky. According to DOB regulations, you cannot block fire escape windows or other exits with an AC unit. Your lease likely reinforces this rule too. If you don’t have another window, you may need to resort to a portable air conditioner.

It’s illegal to store stuff out there

Space is limited in NYC apartments so it can be tempting to put your stuff on the fire escape, but it must remain clear (it is intended as a fire exit after all). Any objects that block a fire escape are illegal, according to the DOB. Have a neighbor who is using their fire escape as a storage closet? You can call 311

How to give your fire escape a check up 

Fire escapes are covered by Local Law 11, also known as the Facade Inspection & Safety Program, so if your building is six stories or higher, your landlord is required to have your fire escape checked out every five years. If you’re unsure of how safe your fire escape is, here is a very lengthy list of rules from the DOB for fire escapes. Importantly, they should have ladders that reach the ground. And if your fire escape isn’t fully attached to the building, it's not safe. 

You won’t see them on new buildings

Fire escapes are not installed on new residential buildings thanks to a 1968 building code change. Instead, buildings must have internal stairwells and an alarm or sprinkler systems. Buildings built before 1968 can have their fire escapes removed, but your landlord has to prove that there is another way to exit the building in an emergency.