Why not emergency slides?
February 8, 2008 8:28 AM   Subscribe

Why don't tall buildings have slides?

Ok, I know this question is approaching silly to some degree, but we had a fire drill at work and it got me thinking about this again. After 9-11 it really struck me the enormity of trying to get disabled, scared, hurt, etc. people down lots of flights of stairs.

It then dawned on me that escape slides that would around the building would be perfect. Yes of course they wouldn't be super safe, they would only be used in the most dire of emergencies. I envision a long slide with basicaly entrance ramps at all floors. I know it would take a lot of engineering to ensure people actually slid and didn't reach some kind of crazy velocity and I know that it would cost a hell of a lot, but other than that, why wouldn't this work?
posted by stormygrey to Science & Nature (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think engineering of any quantity is sufficient to overcome the laws of physics. After a few floors you'd be going incredibly fast, and when you slow down the ascent by minimizing the grade, you start using up a lot of real estate within the building for a system that only works one way (down), and probably becomes slower than stairs at that point.

Also the whole system fails with any kind of obstruction, unlike stairs.

However, I don't see why buildings don't do this for a few floors, just for fun. Whee!!
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:34 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

The first thing this idea made me think of was the attractive nuisance doctrine. People would use these in non-emergency situations for fun and they would get hurt and the obvious legal conclusion would have to be "Well what did you think was going to happen when you put a fucking slide on the side of your building?"
posted by ND¢ at 8:38 AM on February 8, 2008 [7 favorites]

Also, how would you get onto the slide when people are zooming down from floors above you??

There are liable to be traffic jams, and people slamming into them at high velocity.

Clearly you didnt think this through at atll, what we really need are firemans poles.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:43 AM on February 8, 2008

Also, it would be fugly to have a slide on the side of your building.
posted by kindall at 8:43 AM on February 8, 2008

Probably because its ugly and impractical and in the event of a fire if the building is burning at a rate that the stairs are too hot to walk on then you better believe that slide is going to be a few hundred degrees or melting and unsafe. On top of it you would need to add a slide to every floor and probably every side of the building. I'm not sure how this would work out. Youd waste 50% of your real estate for this slide system and the building would have to be much smaller than what we're used to considering the parcel of land.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:49 AM on February 8, 2008

People were working on it.
posted by kickingtheground at 8:51 AM on February 8, 2008

I think the slides could be engineered with enough friction that people would reach a reasonable terminal velocity. The reason these haven't been built is that nobody thought of it. It's brilliant, and you should go into business. And no, I didn't click on kickingtheground's link.
posted by Dec One at 8:58 AM on February 8, 2008

[a few comments removed -- question is not "what are some cool ways to get out of a burning building" thanks]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:59 AM on February 8, 2008

In fact, some buildings have had something like that. My grade school (built sometime in the 1920s, IIRC) had two not unlike the one shown in the linked article, although the building was only three stories. However, we never used it even during a fire drill--when you've got dozens or possibly hundreds of kids, with not more than two stories to go down, it's probably faster just to use the stairs anyway.

This company seems to be trying to market escape slides as well.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:08 AM on February 8, 2008

This PDF from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents indicates that, indeed, fireman's poles rather than slides are the way to go. Further, I think we can conclude that swings would absolutely be the worst fire-escape idea cribbed from a playground, for a variety of obvious reasons.
posted by otolith at 9:11 AM on February 8, 2008

Reason 1: friction = heat. So either your sliders go so fast they kill themselves on the dismount, or they all get crazy first-degree burns on their asses, and then sue yours.

Reason 2: you can only encrust your building with so many cool-sounding but utterly impractical "safety" devices before it costs too much, runs out of usable floor space, or falls over from all the extra weight.
posted by ook at 9:13 AM on February 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

This building has slides. Not for safety reasons as far as I know.
posted by emilyw at 9:15 AM on February 8, 2008

An old school building a few miles away has an escape slide. It's a spiral slide in a metal cylinder on one side of the building. I'm not sure if they still plan to use it in emergencies, but my daughter has slid down it when they had a community fair there. So, yeah, it has been done, but this building is only 2 or 3 floors.
posted by The Deej at 9:25 AM on February 8, 2008

This building has slides. Not for safety reasons as far as I know.

Been down those slides and I don't recall flying that fast at the end, though no way I'd want to go down that 50 stories! It was pretty bumpy and isn't fun hungover. Wonder if the bumpiness helps slow you down?
I think a circular construction helps- make very tight circles to make the slide as horizontal as possible.
However, what if the slide somehow gets clogged? Say a very obese person slides down and gets stuck? Or two people go down together and someone get stuck, and all of a sudden it starts piling up. Ouch.
posted by jmd82 at 9:31 AM on February 8, 2008

There was an apt building near the Johns Hopkins campus that had a 10-story circular slide for a fire escape. There was a bar in the basement (PJ's) and it was a bit of a right of passage at Hopkins that you'd get drunk, sneak into the building, and go for a ride.

Of course, some people thought it was funny to urinate down the slide, so you'd have to take your chances.

On review, it probably does count as an attractive nuisance.
posted by overhauser at 9:32 AM on February 8, 2008

This building has slides. Not for safety reasons as far as I know.

It's the Tate Modern museum in London, and it was a temporary art exhibit.
posted by smackfu at 9:38 AM on February 8, 2008

This Tate Modern exhibition had ginormous slides - according to this article, the artist, Carsten Holler, wanted to advocate the use of slides in everyday buildings. And, apparently, he's already built one in Prada's office in Milan, so Miuccia Prada can slide straight from her office to her car. Which makes me jealous.
posted by tiny crocodile at 9:43 AM on February 8, 2008

Snap. It was temporary, but the Prada one isn't.
posted by tiny crocodile at 9:43 AM on February 8, 2008

Probably because they are unnecessary, at least in modern hi-rises. Today's hi-rise is designed to contain a fire to the floor it occurs on for quite a long time. Typically fire alarms will only require the evacuation of a limited number of floors above and below the fire therefore the stairwell does not get over crowded. However most buildings run firedrills that try to evacuate the whole building at once. Typically it takes 15 minutes or more to get off of my 18th floor during an all building fire drill.
posted by Gungho at 9:47 AM on February 8, 2008

Those spiral slides look like the way to do it...mount them on the outsides perhaps and have entry points for each floor...coat the outsides with NASA grade insulation.

The only problem I have with slides though is the potential for bottlenecks availability in relation to where the fires are in the building. I'd much rather see escape devices that can be assignable per person and can be used from any fenestration (eg. parachutes, repelling gear, zip lines, etc). I also think slides could be seen as cost prohibitive in relation to per-person alternatives.
posted by samsara at 9:55 AM on February 8, 2008

Well I was thinking of slides when I heard of a survivor who had to leave his friend in a wheelchair after a while because he couldn't physcially get him down the stairs because he was injured as well. You can dump injured people on slides, but you can't help them down ropes.
posted by stormygrey at 10:39 AM on February 8, 2008

There is the escape basket slide from the top of the space shuttle to the ground. I was at an IMAX theater and almost crapped my pants as we 'rode' it down.
It's about 36 stories tall, and they hit 50MPH before they get to the bottom. They travel 1200 feet horizontally.
In most downtown environments I don't think you'd have enough room for any sort of slide.

You'd be better off stashing some rope and rappelling harness' and installing eyebolts in the wall.
posted by whoda at 11:10 AM on February 8, 2008

Your question answers itself. "I know it wouldn't work for these reasons, but other than that, why wouldn't it work?" Uhh....

It's not a cost-effective way to save lives. First, you have to build the damn things. Then you have to maintain them. You seem to envision these outside - think how much it would cost to keep them in shape. Then you have to let people get to them, without designing exits that are going to be a massive liability problem - "oh, look, Joe got drunk at the office party and stepped out onto the 10th floor emergency escape platform and fell over the edge." Already, you're ruled these out for any property developer or owner.

But even if those costs didn't exist, this wouldn't work. First, how do you stop people from going too fast? Second, how do you get people onto these things in an orderly way, without them pushing each other off the edge or ramming into each other? People are regularly injured exiting planes on slides, let alone 20-storey burning buildings. Apart from which, who would get onto some rickety slide way up in the air? I see fire escapes that I wouldn't want to get on three stories up, let alone a slide even higher.

Finally, how many lives would this immensely expensive system save? Not very many. Can you name me five high-rise fires in the United States in the last five years where people would have been saved by this kind of system? Most high-rises don't catch fire; when they do, people who die are usually in the immediate vicinity of the fire breaking out. Central fireproof staircases are a perfectly sensible and effective way to get people out of burning buildings. They may not work if people fly planes into the building, but that probably will never happen again. If it did, it would also screw up any exterior slides. This kind of a scheme would cost so much than any lives saved simply wouldn't be worth it.
posted by Dasein at 11:12 AM on February 8, 2008

The OP raises an interesting question, though; what could be done to better help non-ambulatory people out of a high rise building in case of fire? Many valid arguments against a spiral slide have already been mentioned, and I'll add that such a slide would probably have to be enclosed in order to be functional. As a kid, I remember having to take a large piece of wax paper with me to the park (as other kids did) in order to actually slide on the slides which had a build-up of rain, mud, bird droppings, what have you, that served as "drag" and prevented a smooth ride to the bottom.

Elevators are excellent tools for wheelchair users whose job requires them to work on the 74th floor, but in case of fire, elevators are out of the question. Or suppose your gait is slow because you use a cane or crutches; how would you manage hundreds of stairs in case of emergency? Food for thought, definitely.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2008

Here in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 8 floor rehab center has slides on all the stairwells. They are attached to the walls, and can be folded down for use. They take up half the width of the stairs, and one would presume that non-ambulatory patients are aided down by an attendant during an evacuation.
posted by friedrice at 1:06 PM on February 8, 2008


Today's hi-rise is designed to contain a fire to the floor it occurs on for quite a long time.


It's not a cost-effective way to save lives.

you've got your answer.

Typically, hi-rises are put in places where real-estate is at a premium, and any effective slide system, though physically absolutely do-able, takes too much space, is too expensive to construct and maintain, that it's just not cost-effective. Cheaper to design buildings to contain fires, minimizing the number of people needing to evacuate.

The 9/11 situations where an entire building needs to be evacuated rapidly just don't happen often enough to design around.

And, yes, the kid in me would love a giant multi-story slide!
posted by 6550 at 1:59 PM on February 8, 2008

1) How does someone on the middle floors get going without getting WHACKED in the head by someone coming from above?

2) I can't be the only one who would be tempted to throw all manner of hilarious objects down the slide.

3) I'd imagine people would be more likely to suffer should a people-clog occur. Can you imagine the horrors of a three story tall twisting column of suffocating flesh? Horrifying.

4) Except for the occasional stupid human trick, the slide would serve no purpose during a non emergency, where stairs are more useful.
posted by gjc at 3:08 PM on February 8, 2008

Also if it somehow was severed half way down (fire, explosion), you might have a couple of hundred people emerge from the tattered end 30 storeys up in mid air rather than have just walked down the stairs.
posted by tomble at 6:21 PM on February 8, 2008

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