During a birthday party at an apartment in a Rittenhouse Square building in January of 2014, 22-year-old Albert Suh, of Leonia, N.J., and two female friends, both in their twenties, stepped out onto a fire escape on the fourth floor of the 108-year-old building.
The rusty fire escape collapsed under the three, killing Suh and severely injuring the two women.
According to Karen Guss, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, this tragedy was wholly preventable if only the building’s fire escape had been inspected and was up to code.
“That fire escape came right off the wall and then crashed down forty feet,” Guss said of the fatal incident. “That opened a lot of people’s eyes, especially here at L&I, that really, no one had been checking the safety of these things.”
And, now, L&I is asking local residents to help prevent future tragedies by working to create an online database of all fire escapes in the city, that would allow L&I to verify each fire escape as either being up to code or needing inspection.
“One thing we knew would be a challenge in this city is that we don’t have a database for fire escapes,” she said in an interview Thursday. “If we don’t know where fire escapes are, how are we going to make sure they are safe?”
In order to identify all fire escapes in the city, L&I has set up an online page, here, that allows residents to provide information about any fire escape in the city and even share photos of the fire escape. Guss said that with each submission, L&I will check to see if the fire escape is in the database already, if it has been inspected and is up to code or if they need to sent an inspector out to the fire escape to check it out.
The entire process is anonymous, and she said, if a renter has a concern about a fire escape on their building, they can simply provide information and an inspector will check it, they wouldn’t need to contact their landlord for approval and the landlord wouldn’t be told if their tenant alerted L&I.
“It’s super easy. If you see a fire escape, just click on where it is and take a picture,” she said.
Guss said that the fire escape initiative follows a 2016 City Council bill that was intended to make sure property owners are held accountable for the condition of the fire escapes connected to their buildings, to ensure they are safe in case of an emergency.
Already, L&I has had 132 properties reported through the website app, though they don’t know just how many fire escapes there are in total throughout the city.
Guss said she hopes this program helps to answer that question.
“Then, once it’s in our database, it will be mapped, matched with what we know about the property and we will have a report and enforcement can begin.”
Also, if a resident has concerns about a fire escape on their property, the can put its info in the L&I’s online app and they will be able to find out the status of the fire escape, if it has been inspected or not.
“Hopefully, your landlord already did everything great. But, if not, we will come check it out,” said Guss.
To input a fire escape into L&I’s online database, click here. You can also see a map of all the fire escapes throughout the city that L&I has already identified.