Building Code Issues – Emergency Escape and Rescue Windows

Emergency Escape and Rescue Windows – Section 1029.1 of the CBC and Section R310 of the CRC (2013 Ed.)

Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

By Kerwin Lee, AIA, CASp

Kerwin says the concept and requirement for escape and rescue windows in residential occupancies have been in the code for a long time. The intent is to provide an additional level of safety for those who are sleeping and unaware of a potential fire hazard. Many things have changed since this requirement was included in the code. This would include the use of fire alarm systems, smoke detectors and the addition of sprinklers in all residential occupancies.

The requirements for escape and rescue windows are for both escape by the occupants, which may be questionable from the second and/or third stories and rescue by the fire service. The limitation of only the third story is based on manual ladder heights used by the fire service. There are ladders that reach higher, usually mounted on trucks, but access to every window by truck on the exterior of a building is not possible. The location of such windows (size and height) is based on allowing a fire service personnel, in full gear, to enact rescue from the outside.


This concept was great when residential buildings were limited to three stories. Now we have R occupan- cies reaching unlimited heights. High-rise buildings, building with occupied floors over 75 feet above the ground, have by nature a different set of safety standards, but what about the buildings that are four or more stories and less than 75 feet in height? The fourth through the sixth or seventh stories are left out of this level of safety provided to three stories and high-rise buildings.

All multi-family residential buildings are now required to have fire alarm systems, smoke detectors and sprinklers. This is pretty much the same for a single family dwelling, except for a fire alarm system. This increased level of safety has virtually removed the requirement for rescue and escape windows, except in California. Although the International Building Code has removed their requirements for all buildings that are sprinkler protected, the State continue to maintain

this requirement for certain types of residential buildings. The requirement remains for Types IB, IIB, IIIB and all Type V construction. The reason or reasons continue to baffle me. Are there more fires in these types of buildings in the State than anywhere else in the world?


So if your building falls under these construction categories requiring escape and rescue window, you will have to com- ply with the section for the minimum size and operational constraints. This may affect the design of the building from what you want. The problem building types are those with courtyards and podium buildings. The undefined element is if the fire department is going to require access to these windows from a courtyard or from the podium and what that means for providing fire departments access to these areas to access the escape and rescue windows.

Steve Winkel, FAIA CASp

By Steve Winkel, FAIA CASp

I agree with Kerwin’s comments and do not understand why the fire service per- sists on requiring these windows. One argument would be that to remove the requirement would reduce the ability of first responders to rescue occupants in buildings where the windows are required, thus reducing life safety code requirements. The other argu- ment I have heard often is that sprinklers are not 100% reliable and redundant safety features should not be removed when sprinklers are provided. This argument carries some weight for me in single-family res- idences where homeowners are unlikely to pay attention to long-term sprinkler system maintenance. Lack of maintenance could end up reducing sprinkler reliability in houses where sprinkler systems have been in place for longer periods.

Note also that in my experience, including personally for my own home in Berkeley, that many Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) are requiring emergency escape window size compliance for alterations, including replacement of windows done for energy or repair considerations. When I upgraded my 1914 house glazing to new metal-clad double-glazed wood windows I was required to replace a double-hung window where the individual window panes did not meet the size requirement with a casement window where the total window area met the size requirements. I put a horizontal muntin in the center of the vertical rectangle of glazing to make the new window look something like a double hung window, but the profile and operation of the new window are quite different from the old one.

As Kerwin notes, when doing a podium building with a courtyard on the top of the podium it is critical to confer early in the design process with the AHJ where the building will be located to determine if they measure rescue window heights from grade, or from atop the podium. You want to understand their requirements early on. You do not want a permit plan review comment about such windows on your completed CD drawings. ■



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