Where’s the Fire?

The “panic bars” on emergency exits in subway stations are supposed to be used only in emergencies. But their use, and the alarms they set off, have become just another fact of daily life in New York City. Take our poll, and let us know what you think by adding your thoughts in the comments section below.


New York City Transit began installing emergency exits in all of the city’s subway stations four years ago. They allow people to leave quickly in the event of a terrorist attack or other emergency. But they, and the ear-splitting alarm they set off, have become part of the daily routine for many straphangers.

There are three kinds of people in New York: “Trailblazers” like Kasia Reterska, who push through the emergency exits with a clear conscience.

"Quite frankly when I’m leaving the subway it’s always an emergency because I need to get home," says Reterska.

Others, like Max Clark, who might be called “Pragmatists”.

"I never open them myself, but if they are open, I will perpetuate them for a while," says Clark.

And “Moralists” like Nicki Garcia, who think going through violates their principles.

"You know I did it once. Just once," says Garcia.

And what happened?

"Nothing," says Garcia. "No, I didn’t push the gate myself. I followed the crowd through."

She followed the crowd through an already open gate—but she felt bad about it.

"Because it says emergency gate. Um, you know. It’s not an emergency to leave here."

The emergency exits, and the “panic bars” that riders push to open them, allow the subway system to conform to a new state building code. Politicians lobbied for them, especially after the London Subway bombings made it clear straphangers needed a faster way to get out.

"People are not using them for the purposes they were originally intended," says Andrew Albert.

Andrew Albert is the transit riders representative to the MTA board, which oversees New York City Transit. He’s standing near the exit on the 79th street platform on the Number 1 line.

"People are leaving and there’s a high wheel to leave and a lot of people don’t want to wait in line for using the high wheel. As you can hear, they are using the emergency exits. Was that an emergency? I don‘t think so."

Station agents can turn off the alarm on exits they can see from their booths. But not exits they can’t see. And the MTA’s eliminating more and more booths and replacing them with automated turnstiles and panic bars. Albert says New York City Transit should add more turnstiles so people won’t be tempted to push the bar, and also do a better job educating riders.

Does Albert notice anything about the type of person who does this?

"Cuts across all types," says Albert. "I can tell you one thing. They’re impatient."

A spokesman for New York City Transit, Paul Fleuranges, says the subway system has done ample outreach, warning riders through signs in stations and train cars that it’s against the law to use the exits in non-emergencies. Police have handed out 871 tickets so far this year, a slight increase from last year. The fine is $50.

One rider, Jose Ponce, thinks he should be able to use the exits with impunity.

"Sometimes it’s too packed and you’re in a rush and the alarms go off and it gets annoying," he says.

Why doesn’t he just wait in line?

"You gotta get somewhere, man, everybody gotta get somewhere."

The alarm lasts 30 seconds. Pablo Garcia doesn’t see the point.

"No one pays attention to it because they are desensitized to it," says Garcia.

The alarm doesn’t trigger a response by the police or sound inside the nearest token booth. But transit officials claim it does deter even more riders from using the exits and also prevents people from holding the doors open indefinitely and running scams. They add there are no plans to change the way the emergency exits operate.

Emergency exit
Emergency exit
Turnstiles (Elvert Barnes)
Turnstiles (Elvert Barnes)