How to choose a fire escape ladder

Consumer Reports News: November 17, 2010 04:34 PM

When we wrote about fire emergency escape plans, we received a lot of comments from readers asking how to choose the best fire escape ladder for their homes. It’s encouraging to see our readers’ strong interest in fire safety. According to the Home Safety Council, only six percent of American homes have a fire escape ladder. Given that there are over 70 million two- and three-story homes in the U.S., that number should be much higher. 

Home fire escape ladders come in two types. There are portable fire escape ladders and also permanent escape ladders that are built-in to your home. If your home is more than one story, you should have an escape ladder in each top-story room. Ladders are made to accommodate two- and three-story homes. 

Consumer Reports last rated escape ladders in 1991, a long time ago, but our advice still stands. To check if ladders were “strong enough to withstand the stress of someone bounding down the rungs,” we used a stress-testing machine and had some of our “beefy staffers” jump on the tested models.  We emphasized the importance of stand-offs, “protrusions that hold the rungs away from the side of the house. Standoffs help steady the ladder and allow enough room for a toehold.”  So make sure the ladder you choose has standoffs. 

Choose a ladder that has been tested by an independent certification organization, such as the Underwriters Laboratories; look for the UL sticker. Be certain the ladder is the correct size for the window you’ll be using it in. Use the ladder only if all other exits are blocked. 

Ladders can be purchased online or at a hardware, department or safety supply store (stores that sell fire extinguishers may also sell escape ladders). You could ask your local fire department if there is a particular ladder they recommend for homeowners. The City of Seattle Fire Department has a helpful fact sheet about fire escape ladders. 

Once you’ve made your purchase, make sure everyone in your home knows where the ladders are and how to use them. Make sure the ladder deploys without tangling when dropped from the window supporting it. You might also try a practice run or two to make sure everyone knows how to use it.

—Desirée Ferenczi


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