Operational Safety on Fire Escapes

Operational Safety on Fire Escapes

 August 09, 2010- NIOSH F2010-25  Report

Career Fire Fighter Dies from Fall off Fire Escape Ladder –Illinois

Firefighter Christopher Wheatley, CFD


FF Christopher D. Wheatley, Chicago Fire Department (IL)

Firefighter Wheatley and his ladder company were dispatched to a structural fire in a four-story commercial and residential structure.

Upon their arrival, firefighters observed smoke and sparks coming from a cooking exhaust fan chute.

Firefighter Wheatley ascended a ladder attached to the side of the building to gain access to the roof.

He was wearing full structural firefighting protective clothing, including a SCBA.

He also carried a water fire extinguisher with him as he climbed.

When Firefighter Wheatley reached the roof, he lost his grip and fell 53 feet to the ground.

Firefighter Wheatley landed on his feet and immediately dropped to the ground.

Firefighter Wheatley was treated by firefighters and transported to the hospital. He was pronounced dead at the hospital due to multiple injuries.




Alpha-Delta Side with Upper Straight Ladder to Roof


Contributing Factors from NIOSH Report

  • Using a fire escape to access the roof rather than a safer means such as an aerial ladder or interior stairway
  • Victim unable to maintain contact with the vertical portion of  fire escape due to carrying the hand pump.

Key NIOSH Recommendations

  • Ensure that standard operating guidelines (SOGs) on the use of fire escapes are developed, implemented, and enforced
  • Ensure that tactical level accountability is implemented and enforced
  • Ensure that companies are rigorously trained in safe procedures for roof operations and climbing ladders of any type
  • Ensure that fire fighters are rigorously trained in safe procedures for carrying and/or hoisting equipment when ascending or descending elevations
  • Evaluate the fire prevention inspection guidelines and process to  ensure that they address high hazard occupancies, such as restaurant, and incorporate operational crew participation.


Take the necessary precautions while utilizing these building features to enhance operational flexibility and fire and rescue effectiveness. Photo CJ Naum


Operational Considerations from CommandSafety.com

  • IF the fire escape looks unstable, is deteriorated or has evidence of being unsound: Use alternative access means-Don’t use the exterior fire escape for access or operations
  • Based on building use and condition, some cast-iron, wrought-iron and steel fire escapes may have weathered deteriorated or missing components and parts. Use care and implement effective situational awareness while ascending or working from landing platforms.     
  • The presence of deteriorated or  compromised attachment and fastening hardware, brackets, angle iron and connectors is highly probable.
  • Use caution when pulling down a drop ladder from above.
  • Be cautious of loose steel  components, grating, stringers, treads, rails, counterbalances as well  as façade building materials that may drop downward when initially pulling a ladder or accessing a stairs.
  • Use caution when initially accessing and placing body weight onto ladder steps and rungs, landings and rails. Be prepared for unexpected conditions and reactions.
  • The placement of charged handlines will add significant weight to the fire escape system that may already be load stressed. Don’t overload with personnel or handlines.
  • Be aware of added live and dead loads and their combined effect on the system integrity.   
  • Be aware of the horizontal forces  and loads that a charged handline may apply to railings.
  • Look for tenant furniture or other materials that may have been placed or stored on upper escape landings. Watch for and anticipate potential for dropped objects.
  • Well-holes  may be deteriorated leading to successive grated balconies and provide limited space to pass through with PPE and carried equipment.
  • When ascending stairs or exterior attached ladders and goose neck transitions over roof parapets, edges onto the roof deck, keep both hands free: utilize equipment bags, slings, harness or drop ropes to carry, secure or obtain required tools, equipment or appliances.
  • Weather and environmental conditions will change operational risks: slippery walking/ working surfaces, platforms and railings, falling ice, and added loads will increase risk and diminish safety margins.
  • Be extra vigilant and cautious during night operations, since the lack of visibility may not identify weakness or hazards; use personal flashlights  and lamps and when time permits, have apparatus mounted spot lights directed to the fire escape and building façade.       
  • Fire escapes can be readily found on numerous buildings of heritage and legacy construction. They provide indispensable life safety for their occupants and ready accessibility for fire companies.  
  • Take the necessary precautions while utilizing these building features to enhance operational flexibility and fire and rescue effectiveness.


The presence of deteriorated or compromised attachment and fastening hardware, brackets, angle iron and connectors is highly probable. Use caution when pulling down a drop ladder from above. Photo CJ Naum



Fire Escapes come in all sizes. Photo CJ Naum

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