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  1. #1
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    bicycle parking and fire hazards

    Perhaps for once we can talk about some advocacy other than issues of the public roadway or improving the image of cycling.

    Stairwells can often offer a good place for bicycle parking. Railings can almost be a drop in replacement for bike racks and there may be considerable free and empty stairwell space in old or renovated buildings.

    It's often said that putting bicycles in stairwells violates is a fire hazard and/or violates fire codes, but is this always true? Although stairwells are often form a necessary emergency escape route in addition to serving as hookup locations for fire hoses or the like, what legal role do bottoms/tops of stairways to nowhere play? Moreover, if a bicycle doesn't take up any additional space when locked to a railing of an emergency escape route, does it still qualify as a violation of fire code? For example, if handbars and pedals are removed and a bicycle is hung directly under the railing without protruding onto the actual stairs would it still qualify as a violation? Obviously the law would vary with locale, but so does it in the case of public roads. Are there any unifying principles or common generalities? If not then are there are good sources of information on this matter?

    Obviously a building owner has a right to ban bicycles from any part of their building for any reason, but fire code violations are often cited as the source of the objection. If we can show that intended usage is safe, legal, and unobtrusive, then we have a starting point to make our appeal.

    I ask because a few months ago I started experimenting with putting my bicycle in the stairwell of my apartment building. It's not a very large building, but it has several stairwells along with elevators, so this particular stairwell is rarely used. Moreover, from the landing of the top floor the stairwell continues upward two more flights to a hidden empty landing with an empty wall of sheet rock which, without going into too many details, has absolutely no potential use (no roof access, no pipes, no nothing). I began my experiment by locking my bicycle on the hidden landing at the top of the "stairway to nowhere". Of course I received no complaints. However, to avoid carrying my bike up two extra flights of stairs I eventually moved it down to the beginning of the stairway to nowhere, locking it under the railing on the stairs and removing the handlebars and pedals to make it flush with the railing. Although no longer hidden, here I locked it for several months with no complaints, but last night I didn't have my key with me and foolishly just left it the bike standing on the top floor landing (near the emergency water system). This morning I saw the super on my way out and he told me that my bicycle was found in the stairwell and that I would need to keep it in my apartment because it is a fire hazard. Well, after being told that I feel a little bad about just locking it anywhere on the stairway to nowhere. I'd like to ask for permission to continue locking it where I have been, but before doing so I'd like to be aware if it is technically a potential fire code violation. I'll probably try to get away with locking it on the obviously safe hidden landing either way, but I'd rather not draw attention to myself by asking if I'm just going to be shut down for legal reasons. I've looked at the fire code for my city and it seems pretty silent about stairway blockages. So, any thoughts?

  2. #2
    feros ferio John E's Avatar
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    In a previous job I parked my bicycle on the bottom landing of an indoor stairwell, in a dead-end walled-off area where it blocked no one and created no hazard whatsoever. Fortunately, no one ever complained.
    "Early to bed, early to rise. Work like hell, and advertise." -- George Stahlman
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  3. #3
    Calamari to go cc_rider's Avatar
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    Not sure what city you are in but most places in the US use the IBC, and IBC 2003 section 1019.1 regarding Vertical Exit Enclosures (ie. stairs) says "... An exit enclosure shall not be used for any purpose other than means of egress. ...". The code commentary mentions storage as something this code section is meant to prohibit, although some code officials interpret this to include things like mechanical ducts and pipes. I've seen all sorts of things stored in exit stairs - oil drums, lumber, motorcycles, file cabinets, plumbing fixtures. I've seen things locked to standpipe valves so they couldn't be turned on. I've even seen desks so the stairwell could be used as an office, and a band saw as an extension of a woodshop.

    Couple of concerns -
    Stored items can contribute to the fire load (fuel). Even a metal bike has rubber tires, and I could keep cans of paint in my panniers.
    Bike can block exits. If there is any slack on a chain, the bike could be moved into the exit path. Stairs are designed to be used, in a worst case, with no lights and smoke pouring in and people panicking. A bike locked up on the side may not normally be in the way, but to someone feeling their way in the dark in a emergency situation it could be a deadly hazard. Also the stairs are used for more than exiting. Landings, especially the tops and bottoms, are used as areas of refuge for people who can't move easily, and by the fire department as staging areas for their rescue work.

    The building super might have been fine with you leaving your bike in the stairwell, but the Fire Marshal probably won't be lenient. If cited on an inspection report, the building owner is the one who is going to get fined.

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    Very enlightening. Thank you cc_rider (no wonder my city's fire code kept referencing IBC).

    However, is a stairway to nowhere left after a building is renovated to merge the top two floors into a single floor with high ceilings really a Vertical Exit Enclosure? Sure, it's attached to a Vertical Exit Enclosure, but the last flight of stairs doesn't go to or from anywhere.

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    Calamari to go cc_rider's Avatar
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    If the stair is in the same enclosure as the rest of the exit stair, then it is considered part of the same exit system and all the code requirements for exits govern. Only way to separate it from the rest is with a fire rated partition.

    btw In my first apartment when I moved to DC (long ago), I used to lock my bike at the bottom of my stairwell, and I knew better. Eventually moved it into a store room in the basement.
    Last edited by cc_rider; 01-24-08 at 08:00 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by cc_rider View Post
    If the stair is in the same enclosure as the rest of the exit stair, then it is considered part of the same exit system and all the code requirements for exits govern. Only way to separate it from the rest is with a fire rated partition.
    I see. Ok, fair enough. In that case I'll leave the building management alone. I see the reference to the IBC in the city's fire code and, since it doesn't seem to be freely available online, I'll take your word on what the IBC says.

    Thanks for your expertise.

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    Calamari to go cc_rider's Avatar
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    Your welcome.

    I do this for a living, although I usually figure out how to stretch the code while still staying just within it.
    IBC's not on line. I paid $90 for my set of code-with-commentaries, and that's with my discount as a member of the International Code Council.

    Just a thought - your local library MIGHT have it.

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    So, any thoughts?
    A lot of people don't think the local Fire Marshall has a powerful position, but I think they can over ride any ruling concerning fire safety just because he/she said so. Try taking a picture of your set up and see if your head fire guy will approve. If not, there is no reason to proceed any farther. On the other side, I don't think he/she will approve any obstruction of an exit anyway, so again, there is no need to proceed any farther. After that Great White thing in Rhode Island clear fire exits is going to over ride your personal convenience. Sorry, but I think your are going to have to carry your bike up the stairs.

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    Quote Originally Posted by unkchunk View Post
    A lot of people don't think the local Fire Marshall has a powerful position, but I think they can over ride any ruling concerning fire safety just because he/she said so. Try taking a picture of your set up and see if your head fire guy will approve. If not, there is no reason to proceed any farther. On the other side, I don't think he/she will approve any obstruction of an exit anyway, so again, there is no need to proceed any farther. After that Great White thing in Rhode Island clear fire exits is going to over ride your personal convenience. Sorry, but I think your are going to have to carry your bike up the stairs.
    I thought I made it clear that I'm not talking about an obstruction. The way I normally lock my bike it isn't any more of an obstruction than the railing itself is. Furthermore, the portion of the stairwell in question is not even part of an exit path. It's just a dead end left after renovations. If the building were newly constructed the space in question wouldn't even exist.

    However, as cc_rider mentioned, the tires may be flammable and as such should be separated from the exit by a fire proof wall, regardless of whether they are an obstruction or not.

  10. #10
    Senior Member Pig_Chaser's Avatar
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    The other problem is when other people see your bike in the stairwell they may think it's open season to store thier BBQ, old matresses, etc and so forth. I know allot of places will insist the stairwell be kept 100% clean.

    Now i know this all flies in the face of common sense, but let's face it; sense isn't very common.

  11. #11
    Pat
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    Well, I managed a commercial office building. The basic rule is absolutely nothing can be kept at the bottom of a stairwell. I believe the notion is if there is anything down there, it could well be flammable. A stairwell, which serves as a fire escape, can turn into a chimney really easily. It seems harmless enough to store a bicycle down there, but I would never let it happen if I had my say in the matter. Even pretty non flammable materials can produce smoke and you just do not want to take any chances whatsoever in a fire exit. I would suggest that you look into discussing arrangements for bicycle parking with the responsible people. A problem here though is that most commercial buildings have precious little storage space. Storage space does not collect rent and it is all about maximizing rents. They can probably provide a place but I would think that it would be outside.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Pat View Post
    Well, I managed a commercial office building. The basic rule is absolutely nothing can be kept at the bottom of a stairwell. I believe the notion is if there is anything down there, it could well be flammable. A stairwell, which serves as a fire escape, can turn into a chimney really easily. It seems harmless enough to store a bicycle down there, but I would never let it happen if I had my say in the matter. Even pretty non flammable materials can produce smoke and you just do not want to take any chances whatsoever in a fire exit. I would suggest that you look into discussing arrangements for bicycle parking with the responsible people. A problem here though is that most commercial buildings have precious little storage space. Storage space does not collect rent and it is all about maximizing rents. They can probably provide a place but I would think that it would be outside.
    Thanks for your comments Pat.

    I have bicycle parking available. There are plenty of places to park my bike in the parking garage, but as a matter of coincidence it's simply much quicker to go out the front door and start pedaling. This, combined with concerns of theft, is why, before my little experiment, I had opted to keep my bike in the closet of my apartment. I began my little experiment to see if it would be more convenient still to lock my bike in a hidden place under the railing on 30 step detour up the stairway to nowhere on the route between my apartment and the front door. It was more convenient, but not at the expense of safety which I can see is compromised by having a bike with flammable parts at the top of the same fireproof enclosure as the stairway to the street, even if it doesn't block anything.

    Ironically enough, space didn't seem to be a priority in the renovation of this building. It used to be a department store and it seems that some of the renovation choices were made to minimize construction rather than maximize space. There are exceedingly wide hallways, spacious and unused sitting areas on every floor, and an absurd number of elevators in comparison to the number of apartments in addition to the fact that that one side of the building is all utility rooms (not to mention quirks like the aforementioned stairs to nowhere). All in all I'd say that the building has more common areas than it does private rented space and I have to say that although, on the one hand, it seems a bit of a waste, on the other hand it's nice not to feel like you're being packed like sardines in the name of profit.

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