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What is the fastest possible way to reach the ground safely if you are many floors up in a skyscraper and there is a major emergency?

Stairs can get backed up in a stampede:

  • Slow old people
  • Morbidly obese people
  • Someone who trips and falls
  • Children
  • Women's high-heel shoes can cause them to fall when rushing

I started thinking about this when I read this post on imgur:

We had a fire drill the other day. There are 33 stories in our building and normally I can make it down in under 5 minutes. However, the stairwells are only made to accommodate two people side by side. There was a severely obese man in front of me and this obese person had to use both feet on each step. As a result, it took 9 minutes to exit the building.

A fireman's pole seems like maybe it could be an addition to emergency stairs.

I am wanting practical answers conforming to current safety & building codes. However, please keep in mind different economic levels and different national security situations can have different codes/parameters, so even James Bond style, military or super-wealthy tycoon estates can be considered.

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    $\begingroup$ Are we looking for things that can be built into a building, or approaches which would work for an arbitrary existing building? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Sep 25 '16 at 23:13
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    $\begingroup$ In a fire, the fat ones die first.... Of course, the alternative is to place only the fit/slim employees on the upper floors. $\endgroup$ – Aify Sep 26 '16 at 0:19
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    $\begingroup$ "Any Ideas" borders on too broad and being subjective. Can you refine a bit and specify your use case, tech level, and scenario? Is this a solution that has to work the same for fires/ alien attack / general evacuation? does it need to account for multiple floors being rendered impassable? what resources are available to make these buildings/modifications to buildings? $\endgroup$ – Marky Sep 26 '16 at 0:28
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    $\begingroup$ Wing suits... Wing suits for everyone! $\endgroup$ – Durakken Sep 26 '16 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ Is this really a Worldbuilding question? $\endgroup$ – user1717828 Sep 26 '16 at 11:03

10 Answers 10

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Why do buildings not use fireman's poles already?

I think you'll find that fire stairs are the best solution available today. You could augment them slightly, but there's not likely to be a revolutionary change to re-solve the problem of evacuating a building. Saving lives is serious business. It stands to reason that very smart people have thought long and hard about this already.

1. Put 'parking areas' every few floors for the slow or injured to wait while the crowds pass.

We had a fire drill the other day. There are 33 stories in our building and normally I can make it down in under 5 minutes. However, the stairwells are only made to accommodate two people side by side. There was a severely obese man in front of me and this obese person had to use both feet on each step. As a result, it took 9 minutes to exit the building.

Doing some back-of-envelope calculations based on the numbers in the above example, it takes just over nine seconds(9.09s) for an able-bodied person to travel down one floor. It takes over sixteen seconds(16.36s) for a handicapped person. If you were to put space every fifth floor, the worst-case scenario is adding ~37 seconds of total travel time for the people stuck behind the fatty.

But this useful in situations where you experience a new injury in the stairwell.

Evacuation policy for the places I've been at (I've been stiffed with the responsibility of fire warden, so speaking from experience) is usually for people that are infirm or incapable of travelling down a fire escape is to have them wait next to the fire doors - in the common areas, not within the stairwell.

Instructions are to send them down last, or if they refuse to go, leave them there and let the authorities know there's people still within the building.

[EDIT: adding this paragraph] A fire door is a pretty high-tech piece of equipment in itself. A good door is able to withstand a raging fire for over an hour, while keeping a person on the other side of the door unharmed. During a fire; people do into the stairwell, they don't necessarily need to go down the stairs.

2. More fire escapes.

To prevent tripping injuries, people need three points of contact: two feet, and one arm. The arm being satisfied with a hand railing.

This means the width of a stairwell is rather precise - designed so that people can travel two-at-a-time, but not three-at-a-time. You could make a four-wide stair, and add a hand railing in the middle. But the consequence of this is that that 'outer' stairs are about* four times larger than the 'inner' ones. Four times larger, means four times the distance to walk, and four times longer to exit.

TLDR: You can't make fire escapes bigger.

Instead, simply put more fire exits in.

*assuming the inner stairs are 600mm wide, around a 600mm cavity in the middle.

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    $\begingroup$ Correct. A person in a wheelchair can't go down a fire escape. In a fire, they don't go down. Let me edit my post a bit. $\endgroup$ – user6511 Sep 26 '16 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ The reason there aren't fire poles already is a) that they take a fair amount of training and physical fitness to use safely, b) there's a limit to how many people can be on a pole at the same time -- bottleneck at exit -- c) you'd have to change floors every couple stories anyway for acceleration, so they'd take up a lot of building footprint, d) there's a hole in the floor to risk falling through on regular days and e) buildings would still need stairs anyway for regular usage and going UP. :-) $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Sep 26 '16 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ At a previous employer, wheelchair users were instructed to wait inside the stairwell, as it was pressurized to avoid smoke going in. I dimly remember that this was required by fire code, but obviously that is dependent on your location. $\endgroup$ – Simon Richter Sep 26 '16 at 7:03
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    $\begingroup$ Addition to @SRM good comment: I know for a fact that at least in Switzerland the fire poles have a maximum length defined by accident insurance law. IIRC it covers about 3 stories, meaning in a 33 story building you'd need to switch poles 11 times. $\endgroup$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Sep 26 '16 at 11:41
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    $\begingroup$ Your parking areas is discriminatory, and illegal: The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (the DDA) imposes duties on service providers and has changed the way organisations manage public access. It is unlawful to treat people with disabilities less favourably than others nifrs.org/firesafe/downloads/evacuation.pdf $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Sep 26 '16 at 12:45
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There are some emergency kits which have what are essentially rope ladders that can be hooked to the window sill and allow you to climb down. For practical reasons, these are usually limited to 2 or 3 stories hight, since the size and weight rises considerably as the ladder's length increases. As well, you need to be reasonably fit and agile to use this effectively in an emergency (since it isn't permanently installed, you would have to go to a closet and retrieve the package, kick out the window, install the hooks over the frame and roll the ladder out the window, all which might be more difficult in a smoke filled building or when your faculties are being overwhelmed by panic). Something like this could work to get you to a lower balcony where there is less smoke or fire, allowing you to go to the stairs and walk the rest of the way.

enter image description here

deploying the ladder

For long stairwells, there should be sheltered spaces at certain floors for people to stop or get out of the way. Many new buildings have designated shelter spaces where you are supposed to wait out a fire and so the rescue units can find you, but if a building is compromised by an earthquake, terrorist attack or other disaster, the safe spaces might not be so safe anymore.

Here is a fire escape concept which provides the speed of a slide but more control of the descent. Essentially it works like the ladder, but instead of a ladder, you hook the end of a very long fabric tube to the window sill and the fabric provides both protection and control on the way down. Apparently it is an elasticized fabric which provided enough friction to keep descent speed to a level where landing on the ground would not cause serious injury (maybe a sprained ankle or something).

enter image description here

multi entry fire chute

For very tall buildings, what is needed is something conceptually like the lifeboat rigs of an oil drilling platform. The people escaping would enter a pod, which is then sealed against the fire, and escapes from the building by sliding down a zipline (either pre positioned or deployed from the building by activating the alarms). A pod has the advantage of allowing you to have a mechanical device to control the rate of descent, and the possibility of crash pads, airbags or other devices to cushion even injured people from the forces of landing. Large lifeboats can carry 20 or more people, and since a building "lifeboat" won't need to carry survival suits, emergency rations or radios and beacons, the same sized pod could carry maybe twice as many people as the equivalent lifeboat.

enter image description here

Lifeboat in its cradle

Extremely tall buildings would have few options, even a device like a lifeboat would need an improbably long "zipline" to deliver people safely from the top of something like the Burj Khalifa. For a building of that size, the elevators would have to be modified to act as lifeboats during a fire, and also be both self contained and self propelled in an emergency. You still have the issue of what happens when the elevator shafts are compromised; even a self propelled elevator car might become caught in an elevator shaft filled with debris or one becoming a chimney for a fire.

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    $\begingroup$ "Escape pods" are probably the best addition to existing fire escapes. They don't need a zip line. They could ride down a rail on the outside, and be deployed from the roof and/or balconies. $\endgroup$ – Guran Sep 26 '16 at 6:21
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    $\begingroup$ This fabric tube stuff looks hilarious, I really wanna try it now. :) $\endgroup$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Sep 26 '16 at 11:43
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    $\begingroup$ Btw, the zip line idea has already been implemented by NASA: in the case of an impending rocket/shuttle malfunction (read: explosion) your personnel must get away really far really quickly. motherboard.vice.com/blog/… $\endgroup$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Sep 26 '16 at 11:46
  • $\begingroup$ @fgysin as seen in MiB 3... $\endgroup$ – Pureferret Sep 26 '16 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ Escape pods for buildings :D :D :D $\endgroup$ – Lightness Races with Monica Sep 26 '16 at 16:53
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The fastest and quickest way to evacuate a building is by the fire stairwell. Forget about all the nonsense about fancy contraptions to get people down to ground level in increasingly absurd manners.

What is needed is an orderly evacuation system and fire wardens who ensure that people leave the building in an orderly manner. Fire wardens are there to make sure that mobility impaired persons either wait until the stairs are cleared before they descend or they are placed in locations where they can remain in safely until a fireman can come and evacuate them.

The author of this answer was a fire warden in a seventeen story building. Orderly evacuation plans, trained fire wardens and reasonably frequent fire drills will get people out of buildings in the fastest and safest way.

Forget the Rube Goldberg technological fixes. At best they're twaddle and at worst they not needed and most of them are far from safe.

Oh yes, one more thing. Bah! Humbug!

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  • $\begingroup$ I can't really state it better than this (and I tried). It's nice to see the wackier answers though. Won't be too long until someone picks up this question and bases it on Skaro and applies the restriction of first generation Daleks (and then subsequently gets down-voted because Daleks wouldn't build multi-story buildings in the first place..) $\endgroup$ – user10945 Sep 26 '16 at 9:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Pete Of course, Daleks build multi-story buildings. There are lift shafts. Real Daleks use antigravity & never have to take the stairs. You're right about high heels on fire stairwells. $\endgroup$ – a4android Sep 26 '16 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ We're here on world building to put people in a skyscraper-on-fire-rube-goldberg-contraption. Don't take away our fun, Scrooge McAnswerface!! $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Sep 26 '16 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ @corsiKa. Now you want to take away my fun! You Ghost of Worldbuilding Past! Seriously, I'm all in favour of fun answers, but sometimes there's more fun in confronting reality realistically and imaginatively. I find the best answers go in unexpected directions and arrive at places I didn't know existed. Now that's not just fun, that's unalloyed pleasure. Happy haunting! $\endgroup$ – a4android Sep 27 '16 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ No, I hear you Lima Charlie. Sometimes the reason we don't use fantastic solutions in the real world is because they just aren't as good as the simple solutions. I remember one time at work when we were having trouble with a complex system and I said in a meeting "Why don't sit down, form a few hypotheses, run some tests and see if we meet those hypotheses?" and the people in the meeting looked at me like I was some kind of deity who graciously divined wisdom unto them. In my mind I'm thinking "every 8th grader can do this... it's called Science..." So it's good to keep the fantasy in check. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Sep 27 '16 at 15:10
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Just to offer a historical perspective, Paulo Soleri explored this question as part of A Secular Cathedral, one of his many visionary works

A Secular Cathedral

In this work, he had a series of escape slides designed into the building layout to act as a source of shade during the hotter months. In an escape situation, individuals could use the slides to descend out of the cathedral rapidly. Water in the form of a circular pond double both as a beautiful feature and to slow individuals down from their rapid decent.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting idea. How, though, would you deal with the problem of skin contact causing too much friction on the slide and thus slowing or even stopping the sliding, or causing friction burns? $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Sep 25 '16 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomBlairIII Waterslides. I mean, the water in the circular pond has to come from somewhere right? The buildings can have waterslides on the outside! $\endgroup$ – Aify Sep 26 '16 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, I like this idea. How would you avoid major pile-ups at the bottom in the pool if hundreds of people using the slides at once? $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Sep 26 '16 at 0:21
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomBlairIII Just guessing, but I'd consider widening the slide near the end, and give people nothing to hold on to for the last part. Small, effectively random variations would then distribute the people more or less uniformly across the width of the slide. Consider how hard it is to not move sideways as you descend a waterslide already, where the slide is narrow enough that you actually can use both sides to control your position. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 26 '16 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ In non-emergency situations, you can also turn the water slides into a source of revenue by charging admission to thrill seekers. $\endgroup$ – talrnu Sep 26 '16 at 17:34
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One solution for a device to escape a fire is based upon an 'auto-belay' used on indoor climbing walls. the kit consists of an eye-bolt above a suitable window or two, a harness for the escapee to wear (similar to a climbing harness) and the belay device itself - a reel of climbing rope in a casing. There is an anchor point on the reel that attaches to the eye-bolt and the end of the rope protruded and it attached to the harness via a carabiner or similar. Once you have hooked up the reel, put the harness on and attached the reel to the harness, simply jump out of the window. The reel unrolls at a controlled speed, lowering you to the ground.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I've actually seen a kickstarter (at least I think it was) for exactly this idea - People living in high rises could have the hook fitted above a suitable window and then rappel down the side of the building in an emergency. $\endgroup$ – djsmiley2k - CoW Sep 26 '16 at 11:26
  • $\begingroup$ I've used a 15m auto-belay at a climbing wall and letting go of the wall is absolutely terrifying... $\endgroup$ – Steve Ives Sep 26 '16 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ I can imagine it is, but compared to being burnt alive.... What I do wonder is could we have these within lift shafts also - Normally I believe the reason you can't use a lift in a fire is incase it gets stuck/shuts down? With a number of these setup (a large lift could easily have 4-5 underneath it) you could allow 4-5 people at a time to rappel down the lift shaft to safety?. Again might not be the safest thing, but compared to burning alive.... $\endgroup$ – djsmiley2k - CoW Sep 26 '16 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ The elevator shafts act like chimneys and hot gasses and smoke get sucked up the shaft during a fire. If you were to go down the shaft you risk being choked on smoke and poisonous gasses. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Sep 26 '16 at 17:03
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Design and build the buildings such that there are arching patios/balconies sticking out - Allow the users of the building to walk onto those patios, and provide parachutes on the upper floors with the patios. Give every employee parachute training.

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    $\begingroup$ I hope that obese guy doesn't land on my head $\endgroup$ – Mawg Sep 26 '16 at 7:02
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How about a stack of parachutes and a human catapult? When the fire alarm rings, wheel the catapult out of the reception area (where it was functioning as a piece of modern art) and bring it up next to one of the downwind-side windows.

To get the window out of the way, load up the office copier or maybe that throne size chair that the boss sits in, and fire it point blank into the window. Then pass out the preassigned parachute backpacks to all of the company employees and start launching them out beyond the smoke and fire.

This technique would not only get all of your treasured employees out safely, but during the pre-fire years, it could serve as a productivity motivator... Just let a rumor circulate that the size and quality of each employees assigned parachute is directly proportional to the score on their most recent performance review.

"The harder you work... the slower you fall."

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    $\begingroup$ Jumping with a parachute from 5th or 10th floor is a good way to ensure the death of everyone - they are useful for large heights, but jumping from an office building is tricky. The top floor would be feasible for skilled jumpers, but random office workers would still tend to die during fire drills, which is undesirable. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Sep 26 '16 at 6:58
  • $\begingroup$ Just replace them. $\endgroup$ – Sumurai8 Sep 26 '16 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ "This technique would not only get all of your treasured employees out safely" - citation needed. $\endgroup$ – Taemyr Sep 26 '16 at 10:11
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    $\begingroup$ Well, OP asked on worldbuilding, they get worldbuilding... $\endgroup$ – Zommuter Sep 27 '16 at 6:08
  • $\begingroup$ But you'll be launching the person horizontally out of the building. IF parachutes were viable, what are you going to do to stop them from smucking into the high rise next door? I mean, why not just jump out of the broken window? $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Sep 28 '16 at 14:47
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Have a dozen emergency bouncy castles on standby.

Seriously though, stairs are still the most effective exit route, that and regular fire drills so that people are used to exiting the building quickly.

Encourage women to store flat shoes in their pedestals if they're habitual high-heelers.

Public buildings generally have more routes of exit and more dedicated emergency exits, so they wouldn't be as constricted as an office block.

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The quickest way, even for disabled people, is an escape chute.

enter image description here

This company says it can do a max length of 200 meters, which, given a 3-meter story, gets you some 67 stories of chute. This chute of theirs appears to be on a 30-something story building: enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you have evidence of a 30 floor escape shoot? $\endgroup$ – Yakk Sep 26 '16 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ If the building was designed properly, you could do multiple levels. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Sep 28 '16 at 14:49
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Maybe a slide?

One of the the longest is at the London Olympic park, and descends close to 100m. http://arcelormittalorbit.com/whats-on/the-slide/

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting to see a modern one. Have you been on it? I wonder if people getting too dizzy to stand up at the bottom would be a problem in an emergency? $\endgroup$ – Thom Blair III Sep 26 '16 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ @ThomBlairIII No, I haven't been on it. Although it is a quick way down for an individual, I suspect that they probably wait for a person to come out the bottom before they let the next one in the top, which means only 2 people per minute can get down. Stairs can probably do at least 20 people / minute. $\endgroup$ – rjmunro Sep 27 '16 at 9:45

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