By Kheli Mason
Here’s an interesting word for the day: egress. It is a strange sounding word that carries a lot of importance when it comes to the health and safety of those of us who spend any time within the walls of dwellings and commercial structures. Simply put, it means to go out, to exit, or a path or opening for going out, an exit. It is important to be able to get into a building, yes. But it is even more important, once you are in there, to be
able to safely and quickly get back out in case of an emergency situation, such as fire. Sometimes the way you go into a structure, or portion of a structure such as the basement, is not available to you to exit for whatever reason and you must be able to exit using another egress path.
As you probably have guessed, this is where building codes enter the picture. Yes, those fabulous books full of “legal-speak” that tell us what we can and can’t do, and how dare they? After all, it is your home and you should be able to do whatever you want, right? Well, I sort of get that, but after seeing the devastation caused by fire, this is an area where I side with the code officials (and actually, if you know me, you know I pretty much always side with code and local ordinances). The International Residential Code* (IRC) calls this type of egress an Emergency Escape and Rescue Opening and defines it as “an operable exterior window, door, or similar device that provides for a means of escape and access for rescue in the event of an emergency.”
Because so many fire deaths occur as the result of occupants of residential buildings being asleep during the fire, the IRC requires that all basements and sleeping rooms (bedrooms) have windows or doors that may be used for emergency escape or rescue. These openings must open directly into a public street, alley, yard, or court. In other words, not into another enclosed area. If a basement contains one or more sleeping rooms, each sleeping room requires its own escape and rescue opening, the exception being basements that only house mechanical equipment with a total floor area not exceeding 200 square feet.
The size of the escape and rescue opening is a minimum 20 inches wide by 24 inches high. This is based on the width necessary to place a ladder within the window opening and width required to admit a firefighter with full rescue equipment, including breathing apparatus. Seems rather tight to me, but the dimensions are based on extensive testing by the San Diego Building and Fire Departments and were adopted by the IRC. The opening also cannot be more than 44 inches above the floor.
For below grade emergency egress, a special window well is necessary. The well must have a minimum 36” X 36” dimension (9 ft2), and if the depth of the well is more than 44,” then a ladder or steps is required. Emergency escape and rescue windows are allowed to be installed under decks and porches provided the window can be fully opened and a path not less than 36” in height is provided to a yard or court.
When I was a little girl, I remember my family laid out the emergency plan should there be a fire. My sister and I each had our own room on the second floor on opposite sides of the house. The plan was that we would climb out the only windows in our rooms to the roofs outside each window and wait until someone came to get us. Well, as you can imagine, we practiced our escapes many more times than our parents were aware of, but when I go home now for a visit, I doubt very much that I could even get out of those windows.
I urge you to take a look at your Emergency Escape and Rescue Openings. If your situation does not necessarily comply with the written code, do you have an alternate plan in case of an emergency? And, like my family had when I was young, do you have an emergency plan just in case you need to evacuate your dwelling in a hurry? Emergency plans do not have to be a ‘scary’ thing for households to design and implement. Practicing the emergency evacuation can be sort of fun, as long as the seriousness of why you are doing it is clear. And, fire is not the only emergency for which to be prepared. Severe weather poses its own set of dangers and preparation, as well. And spring is coming.
Kheli Mason, The Handy Woman, LLC
With over 20 years experience in Home Maintenance, and Repair, Remodeling and Building Inspection, Kheli started the Handy Woman LLC to be ‘not just your average contracting company’, but to also teach people how to take care of their homes by offering do-it-yourself coaching and how-to classes. Along with typical home repair and maintenance services, her focus is to help our elders age-in-place and teach women homeowners how to understand and care for their homes.
For more information please call Kheli @ 303.999.5812 or visit www.thehandywomanllc.com
*2006 The International Residential Code for One- and Two-Family Dwellings, Section R310