Burglar bars, also known as security or window bars, can be found on any type of structure – single-family home, apartment building, storefronts. The bars provide a visible sign of security serving as both a deterrent to potential burglars, and a reassurance to those who had the bars installed. However, burglar bars can also be dangerous, preventing residents and other occupants from escaping in the event of a fire and leading to fatalities.
Based on data obtained from the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), on average about 25 civilians are injured or die each year in fires where escape is compromised by unauthorized bars or gates. The actual numbers may be larger than that, due to the fact that the presence of burglar bars is not always collected in a way that is recorded by NFIRS (e.g., written in text but not coded). The most recent version of NFIRS, version 5.0, allows for the collection of data concerning burglar bars; however, data from the new version is not yet available.
Most fatalities/injuries involving burglar bars occur in residences, when people become entrapped by the very bars that are supposed to protect them. Children, the elderly, the mobility impaired, and firefighters are especially vulnerable. The bars also can hamper rescue efforts, especially the efforts of those who arrive before public safety personnel.
Due to the fire egress risk posed by burglar bars, most building codes regulate their installation/use. Several states have passed legislation specific to burglar or security bars. Generally, the codes and legislation require that burglar bars have some form of quick-release mechanism, enabling rapid escape in case of fire. Furthermore, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Life Safety Code 101 addresses the risk posed by unauthorized bars, stating that a window or other means of escape should be operable from the inside “without the use of tools, keys, or special effort.”
The cost of retrofitting or replacing existing burglar bars, along with a lack of awareness, has hindered the compliance to these regulations. The fear of burglary, theft, and/or physical attack presents a greater perceived risk with people than the threat of fire, especially among those who have been previously victimized. Several fire departments have experienced success in reducing the presence of unsafe bars by actively working with the public to provide information about the devices. The public can be educated actively (door-to-door information), passively (websites, posters, etc.), and at points-of-sale. While pre-planning in neighborhoods, firefighters should note structures that have burglar bars on their windows/doors, and make a note of them for use in a response. They may also consider proactively providing safe practices information to the location noted.
While burglar bars may slow rescue they are not impenetrable. Fire departments have found success with a variety of strategies to gain entry, or prepare a route of egress, through burglar bars.