October 29, 2022 | Last updated Aug 17, 2023

Sliding to Safety

A student or teacher slides down what appears to be a flexible fire escape outside York’s Central School during a fire drill, February 10, 1910. NSHS RG2856-9-62 (above).

As Nebraska communities built large, multi-story schools in the late nineteenth century, providing a means of escape in case of fire was always a concern. One of the biggest problems was finding a safe way to evacuate people on the upper floors if the inner stairwells collapsed. The deadly Collinwood, Ohio, school fire of March 4, 1908 (in which 172 students, two teachers, and a rescuer died), was an impetus for Nebraska and other states to take action.

In 1909, Nebraska’s Fire Commission, forerunner of the present State Fire Marshal’s office, was created by the Legislature. Among the Fire Commission’s duties was the promotion of fire prevention and fire drills in schools. It established the first Friday in November as “State Fire Day,” to be observed by public and private schools, and recommended that observances conclude with a fire drill and “the use of the fire escape where such is provided.”

Several types of fire escapes were then in use. A patent for an exterior steel staircase to be used as a fire escape was registered in 1887. Metal tubes that could be used as slides were also installed on some buildings for the same purpose. A rival fire escape method that emerged in the early twentieth century was a long canvas tube suspended from the window of an upper story. The Kearney Daily Hub on December 3, 1912, reported on the recent demonstration of such a device, the “Safety Portable Fire escape apparatus,” at the city’s Whittier School. The Hub said:

“A large canvas tube, firmly fixed in the windows of the school room, is jumped into by the occupants when cut off by fires in the stairway, and a toboggan slide is made to safety, two or more boys holding the lower end of the sack, at some distance from the building.

“Beginning with the boys of the school room, all went down ‘a-scooting’ in perfect safety and easily, then the girls, . . . also slid down. By twisting their skirts under them, they were drawn tightly about the ankles, the friction going down holding them firmly in place.” Last came the teachers and the school principal, Marie Wenzell, without “having even their coiffures ‘fussed.’”

The local school board was so impressed with the demonstration of the portable fire escape that they ordered twelve of them for use in the Kearney schools.

– Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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