After moving to Luxembourg, I often wonder: "If my partner or I were injured in a fire, would my child be able to escape safely?"
I have noticed that in Luxembourg fire safety is a privilege, accessible primarily to those residing in high-priced apartments in high-priced neighborhoods. These buildings tend to have fire doors that open towards the sidewalk and street, ensuring a safer exit in case of emergencies.
Newer building in Luxembourg.
Photo of a friend’s child opening the main door to their apartment building in Luxembourg City. The door requires a key to exit. The building was built around the 1960s.
I used to own a rental property for 17 years in Buffalo, New York. The building was built in the 1880s, the large old exit door was not fire safe and could have caused injury in case of a fire. To correct this, to make it fire safe, all I had to do was flip the exit door around, to allow it to open towards the alleyway, that lead to the street.
This was important to me as buildings that have doors that open inward, towards the building, tend to have high death rates. It was a moral issue for me.
Fortunately, the State of New York enacted laws to address these issues, mandating multiple exit doors, unlocked exits, and doors opening towards safety. It doesn't matter if the building is 5 years old or 120 years old, they all have to have doors that open outwards, towards safety.
Compliance with these regulations became compulsory for all buildings and inspections happen every time a building is sold. The building must pass inspection before it can be sold, and the inspection is funded by taxpayers, making it free of charge for building owners.
I even went further, I had special thumb-flip bolt locks installed on all apartment doors, and the main exit door. The cost was €50 per door. Again, a few bucks could save all of my tenants lives. Again, it was a moral issue for me.
It was money well spent. And this made me wonder; since doors can be modified to be safe, and it was easy and cheap to do… why hasn’t Luxembourg enforced this on all buildings? Why is this not inspected each time a building (or apartment) is sold?
We had a kitchen fire several years ago. First the alarm sounded from the kitchen. Then the second alarm sounded from the hallway of the apartment. The smoke flowed down the hallway. The hallway was connected to the stairwell of the apartment building.
My 6 year old came running down the apartment hallway, into the bedroom. She jumped in front of me, and with a serious tone announced there was a fire. I told her, “Head downstairs”. She was fast. So, fast that when I turned around to follow her, she had already ran ahead of me down the hallway towards the apartment’s door. She held her thumb up in the air, flipped the lock switch, and the door opened into the hallway.
The smoke flowed from our apartment into the hallway. This triggered the alarm system in the building. At this point, all alarms were blaring. As I rushed to catch up to her, I saw that she held her 3 year old sibling by the hand, the door to the hall and stairs was already open. The door automatically shuts behind them, so I opened it to follow them. They had already descended down from the 3rd story to the 2nd story of the building.
The older tenant downstairs opened her apartment door. I could hear my 6 year old yell at the elder tenant downstairs, “We got to go!” The elder tenant say, “OH, I’m right behind you.” My 6 year old was leading the escape!
At the bottom of the stairs, my child held up her thumb, flipped a mechanical switch and the fire-exit-door open. They were free from the fire. There were no fancy computerized locks. The door had a simple piece of fire safety equipment, a thumb flip bolt lock that does NOT even need a key. That’s the trick… no key, no fancy this or that.
I knew my children would be safe, because we practiced fire safety drills AND I had installed a special lock on our apartment door. The same lock that was on the main fire exit door also. It made escaping through both doors easy. So, easy a 6 year old child could can save themselves from a fire.
The thumb-flip bolt lock was a great investment. In hindsight, there is an even better lock for doors, also keyless and uses simple mechanics. For a quick link see the push bar wiki article here.
The push bar (or panic bar) was invented on 13th August 1892 in Great Britain, in response to a tragic incident in 1883 when 183 children lost their lives in a school with a locked exit door. Initially installed in non-residential buildings, the lessons learned from this event were unfortunately not heeded by the United States, including New York. Americans seemed to have overlooked the hard-learned lessons of Great Britain.
In the United States, from 1903 to 1911, devastating fires occurred in a theater in Chicago, a school in Cleveland, and a shirt factory in New York. These tragic incidents claimed the lives of 602, 174, and 148 people, respectively. Some of these places lacked sufficient exit doors, while others had locked doors without keys. To worsen matters, some doors opened inward, towards the building rather than outward, obstructing the path to safety on the street. As a result of the panic and the doors opening the wrong way, the ability to escape was severely hindered. Tragically, it took the loss of 924 lives before the United States and New York revised their laws, compelling owners of old buildings to adhere to modern safety regulations. As a result, three new laws were enacted, mandating the installation of multiple exit doors, prohibiting the locking of exit doors, while allowing other doors leading to exits to lock from outside but remain unlocked from the inside. Furthermore, doors were required to open towards safety.
New York learned from its past mistakes and is determined not to repeat them. Presently, whenever a building is sold, strict compliance with the law is mandatory, regardless of its age. There are no provisions for grandfathering in a building.
These laws, in place for about 100 years, have led to fire and panic safety features being present in all factories, hospitals, and apartment buildings constructed since then.