No Way Out
Hank Investigates: No Way Out
The smoke, the flames and the frightened faces, all in a firefighters line of duty. But Chief William Hitchcock remembers the night it wasn't the fire that almost stopped him…
Chief William Hitchcock
"The railing came away from the building."
…But the fire escape that broke underneath him.
Chief William Hitchcock
"I was scared to death."
And our investigation found that across Massachusetts more unsafe fire escapes -- rusty, deteriorating, crumbling, broken. And what state officials didn't know was that the system they set up to keep them safe is also falling apart.
Tom Riley, State Building Dept.
"The potential ramifications are disastrous."
Cisco Menendes, President Fire Escape Inspectional Services
"So lets look at this one..."
This expert ironworker is licensed to build, maintain and inspect fire escapes.
"So then over here?"
For months we examined dozens of them with alarming results.
Hank Phillippi Ryan, Investigative Reporter
"Looking at this today, would this pass inspection?"
In dormitories, at theaters, at homes and apartment buildings…
"So rust is actually eating away at the metal of the fire escape?"
"And the bottom line?"
"It will get weak and eventually fall."
This one has rotted metal, this one missing bolts, twisted metal…
"Would the stairs come down?"
"No, it would never come down."
This one a broken tread…
"So how dangerous is it for the people inside the building?"
"This fire escape is going to put somebody either in the hospital or it’s going to put somebody in a cemetery."
Fire escapes are so critical, the state building code requires that they be "certified for structural adequacy and safety every five years." But our investigation found that safeguard is simply being ignored.
Here's proof, we chose fire escapes at random in Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, Worcester and here in Quincy. We checked building department files, "there is no fire escape certificate here… Not in this one."
...to see if building owners had submitted their mandatory inspection reports, "So there’s no certificate in this one either?" "Right."
Bottom line: Not one we checked in Quincy had been certified as safe... and the director of inspectional services admitted, because of staffing shortages the city has no idea how many other fire escape owners are breaking the rules.
"And as a result, do you know how many fire escapes in your city are safe or not?"
Walter White, Quincy Inspectional Services
"I don't know."
In Worcester not one we checked was certified. In Somerville, "nope." Four more fire escapes…
"Do they fall through the cracks?"
Dave Dow, Somerville Dept. of Public Works
Not one up-to-date certification and again, no system for keeping track.
"How can they get away with that?"
"I guess that the shortest answer of all is that we don't have the resources to sit here and follow up on these things."
If structural deficiencies are reported, local building inspectors can actually evacuate residents until repairs are made! But when we surveyed two dozen more communities, most admitted they had no idea how many fire escapes were certified.
In Taunton, inspectors told us they "...haven't seen a certification in 25 years." Northhampton officials said, "It's a cold day in hell when that happens."
In Cambridge too, not one of our test buildings was certified and the official in charge wouldn't come out to discuss it.
In Boston, where there are more than 8,000 fire escapes and again according to inspectional services, not one we checked was certified. Officials know they are required to enforce the building code, but they admit they don't always know if owners are breaking the law.
"Right now the building code is being ignored!"
John Dorsey, Boston Inspectional Services
"Right. But it’s difficult to write a violation when we don't have knowledge of something like that."
But state officials say for a critical issue like this, communities should know and they warn that the Massachusetts building code is not optional.
"Does it worry you that these fire escapes are not being certified?"
"This is an important issue and should not be ignored."
That's because after the smoke and flames begin, it'll be too late to learn you've got no way out.
"I can’t stress it enough, Hank, that these things have to be maintained and someone has got to be watching."
As a result of our investigation, state officials will now issue an alert to local inspectors. Meanwhile, If there's a fire escape on your home or office, you can check with your local building department to see if it's properly certified.