NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Fire escapes are literally part of the fabric of New York City.
In some instances they even become an ad hoc extension of our limited living spaces.
But CBS2 is demanding answers after a shocking tour revealed just how dangerous the city's emergency escape routes have become.
"You see the tread already dislodged?" Cisco Meneses asked CBS2's Marcia Kramer.
"How much rust is inside that?" Kramer said.
"I wouldn't go on this fire escape," Meneses warned.
It was an eye-opening afternoon with the nationally recognized fire escape expert. As CBS2 walked the streets in downtown Manhattan, it was too easy to spot dangerous conditions.
"Does this fire escape have violations?" Kramer asked about another building.
"Yes… it has been kept painted, but it's not structurally sound," Meneses explained.
Heavy rust was clearly visible and - something else CBS2 saw over and over again - air conditioners blocking the way.
"That's an obstruction… for the fireman to get in as well the people to get out."
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Any obstruction, from flower pots to art installations, can impede a safe escape in an emergency. Even more frightening, the structural integrity of fire escapes designed to save lives has started to become deadly.
Earlier this year in SoHo, a tread fell from a fire escape and killed one pedestrian and injured another.
In May of 2011, an entire platform gave way from a building in Midtown.
"You can see here the evidence of corrosion… that's what caused the platform to fail," attorney Herb Cabrera said.
Cabrera says the victim fell 12 feet and needed multiple surgeries. The building eventually settled the lawsuit for millions.
According the Department of Buildings, there are about 200,000 fire escapes in the city. They are all required to be maintained by building owners.
In buildings six stories and above, fire escapes and building facades are inspected by the DOB every five years. Despite that mandate, the agency told CBS2 that they "have a limited number of inspectors in the city. We do the best that we can."
They were clearly concerned when Kramer showed some of what CBS2 found.
"That's an unacceptable condition," the DOB's Timothy Hogan said.
This year, there were more than 5,000 complaints to 311 and the DOB - as well as the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and FDNY - who also do regular inspections to make sure fire fighters are safe.
"If we feel a fire escape is dangerous or unsafe, we don't expect our members to go on it," FDNY Deputy Chief Joseph Carlsen said.
The FDNY says they will put up ladders or find another way in to building in those cases.
The Department of Buildings says they rely on the public to call 311 about fire escapes with any areas of concern. They promise all calls remain confidential.
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