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Updated February 2022
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Buying guide for best fire escape ladders

The smoke detectors are blaring. You step out of your bedroom and see flames. Thick smoke fills the house. Your family’s only way out is the second-floor window. There’s no time to make a rope out of bed sheets or even call 911. Do you have to jump?

If you had a fire escape ladder, you wouldn’t have to.

Fire is a constant threat to any home, but you can minimize the risk by taking steps aimed at preventing harm to you and your loved ones. Every family’s fire safety plan should include smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, and emergency ladders stored and at the ready in all upstairs bedrooms.

Because you may only have a minute or two to get out of your burning home – and may have been roused from sleep and somewhat disoriented – the ladder must be easy to find and simple to operate. Emergency fire escape ladders come in all sizes and materials, but there are basically two types: those that are built into your home and those that are portable. The most common (and affordable) fire escape ladders are those that you can store under a bed or in a closet and then quickly deploy through a designated window.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to do this: simply open the window and place the attachment hooks over the sill. Pull the release strap and unfurl the ladder along the side of the house. Then, exit the window and carefully climb down, assisting young children and members of the household with physical limitations.

Built-in ladders are installed in the wall under the window, attached securely to the studs. The rails and rungs are coiled inside a box. There are no hooks to be secured. In an emergency, you remove the box cover, pull the release strap, and drop the ladder out the window.

The obvious advantage to built-in ladders is that they are always ready to be used, making for the quickest possible escape. There is also little chance of slippage at the attachment point if the ladder is installed securely with the proper lag bolts. The downside: built-in fire escape ladders are more expensive than portable ladders and require professional installation unless you happen to be a carpenter or experienced DIYer. Many built-in ladders come with a template that can be used to mark drywall for cutting. Some patching and repainting may be required afterward. (While the covers can be painted over or wallpapered, remember that it’s best not to hide it. Guests staying in the room may not be aware that it exists.)

A portable fire escape ladder can be just as effective if it is carefully chosen for length and strength, tested on the designated window, and stored nearby in an easy-to-reach place, preferably in a brightly colored bag or box.

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Having an emergency ladder in every upstairs bedroom is an important part of a home’s fire safety plan, along with extinguishers and smoke detectors.

Key considerations

When shopping for a fire escape ladder, you should first measure the width of your window and its sill. Do the same for the distance from the windowsill to the ground.

Ladders come in a range of lengths, most commonly for two- to three-story buildings. Some, however, are long enough to serve five- or six-story apartment buildings. It’s better to have a ladder that is a little too long than one that is too short and requires fleeing people – which may include children and grandparents – to jump even a few feet, risking injury. Many manufacturers offer different lengths for each model. In general, it is advised that you choose 13 to 15 feet for a two-story home and 20 to 25 feet for homes with three stories.

Strength is another important factor. Escape ladders should be able to handle the weight of several people escaping a fire at once. While many quality ladders are rated to support 1,000 pounds or more, some can only handle one person at a time. That’s a limitation you want to avoid. Check the specifications listed by the manufacturer before buying.

Here are some other tips about materials.


They should be thick and made of heavy-gauge steel for a secure, strong hold with non-slip caps on the ends. The best hooks are set wide and capable of adjusting to the thickness of the wall, usually between six and 13 inches.


Choose a ladder with rungs that are made of steel or sturdy, aircraft-grade aluminum. They should be either grooved or coated with an anti-slip material.


The rails holding your ladder together also need to be strong. Some are made from seatbelt-tough nylon, while others are forged out of steel chain. Rails should be fire-resistant to prevent any melting that could compromise the strength of the ladder.


Quality emergency ladders have protruding standoffs, also known as stabilizers. They serve a dual purpose by holding rungs away from the wall of the house, allowing space for a secure toehold, while also stabilizing the ladder, preventing it from swaying as people descend.

If you’re uncertain whether your ladder measures up in most of these categories, choose one that has been certified by an independent certification organization, such as Underwriters Laboratories. Look for the UL sticker on the packaging.


Lightweight: While the strength of a ladder is vital in an emergency situation, the overall weight of your portable escape device shouldn’t be more than each member of the household can handle. Find one that is lightweight (between five and ten pounds) so that even a younger child could deploy it if needed. Lighter ladders are also easier to reel in and repack after a practice drill.

Easy to open: When time is of the essence, a ladder with a quick-deploy mechanism can be a life-saver.  If yours takes more than a second or two to release and be ready to use, exchange it for a model that unfurls faster. Avoid portable ladders that don’t come fully assembled.

Tangle-free construction: Emergency ladders are often difficult to repack, so look for models that boast “tangle-free” construction to make that job easier. If your portable ladder doesn’t come with a storage bag or box, make one of your own to ensure it won’t become tangled.

Warranty: The best ladders offer a lifetime warranty, but note that almost all manufacturers also recommend that the ladder be replaced after use during an actual emergency. Do not try to squeeze extra value out of a ladder that was used in a fire. If it fails the second time, you would only have yourself to blame.

Fire escape ladder prices

Prices range from $30 for a basic portable escape ladder to $150, depending on length and the quality of materials.

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Did you know?
You have a one in four chance of having a home fire large enough to be reported to a fire department during your lifetime, according to the National Fire Protection Association.


According to the Home Safety Council, only a small percentage of American homes have a fire escape ladder, yet the odds are one-in-four that you will experience a house fire in your lifetime. As such, keep these important tips in mind.

  • A fire escape ladder is an important part of an overall fire safety plan that includes smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and a rehearsed household evacuation plan.

  • Experts advise you to figure out before a catastrophe occurs where the possible exits and escape routes are in your home. To maximize your chances of a safe escape in an emergency, place a portable ladder in each upstairs bedroom.

  • Check that designated windows can be opened. Smoke alarms should be in each bedroom and hallway. Ideally, they will be interconnected, so they all sound at once to create the maximum effective warning.

  • Make sure the street number of your house is clearly visible to responding emergency personnel.

  • Make sure everyone in the household is familiar with the fire escape plan and that they have practiced it in a realistic drill.

  • Always test your ladder before an emergency on its intended window. Each member of the household (who is able) should practice climbing out of the window using the ladder.

  • During an actual emergency, escape ladders should only be used as a last resort, when all other exits are blocked, safety experts say.

  • Note that when manufacturers say on the packaging that a ladder is for one-time use, that means the ladder should be replaced after being used in a fire because it has been weakened by heat or flames. Ladders should always be tested after purchase, including those built into the wall.

One of the nice things about a portable fire escape ladder is that you can stash it somewhere out of sight most of the time — under a bed, for example. Wherever you choose to store your portable ladder, however, be sure you keep it close to the window you plan to use in the event of an emergency.

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There may be heavy smoke and confusion during a fire, so easy access to your emergency ladder is crucial.


Q. Do I have to attach my fire escape ladder to a windowsill?

A. Yes. Portable ladders are designed to securely attach only to windowsills. Do not try to hook a ladder onto a wall, siding, or gutters.

Q. How many people can use an escape ladder during a fire?

A.  Each fire escape ladder is rated for total weight capacity, which is an important consideration when shopping. The best ladders are strong enough to handle several people at once.

Q. Are built-in emergency ladders better than portable models?

A. Not necessarily. Top-quality ladders are available in both types. While a built-in ladder is the most convenient in a fire emergency, it also more expensive and somewhat difficult to install.

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