Egress is defined as a means of exit or a way of leaving, and fire egress is more specifically defined as methods for exiting a structure during a fire. There are laws on the municipal, state, and federal level that determine what standards a structure must meet in order to be considered safe for fire exit, and a number of agencies may contribute to these laws. They also may be variable depending on location, and compliance with any of these laws could be evaluated by different agencies, like fire departments on in the US, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), depending on type of building or structure. Moreover, buildings may be checked for more than one type of egress component and could be inspected for egress during other disasters, natural or manmade.
Fire egress standards have evolved over a considerable timed period, and often due to massive fires where people did not survive. As mentioned, many different agencies have studied failure for people to escape to determine what is needed to generate likelihood of people being able to safely leave a structure. It would be difficult to list all specific fire egress features, but there are some building code concepts that are usually shared to help people get out of a building in a safe manner if a fire occurs.
Some of these features include having clearly marked exits, so that people know where to go to leave if a fire happens. In most buildings, there have to be at least two exits, and there may need to be more if occupancy in the building is high. The exits themselves usually have to be built with materials that can withstand fire for an hour to two hours and they can never be inaccessible or locked. In a number of buildings, doors that aren’t exits also need to be clearly marked, so that people in a panic do not get confused and go in the wrong direction.
Since exits may include going downstairs, there are often specific standards that need to exist in stairwells. Stairs have to be well lit and stairs of a certain length require handrails. An additional requirement in fire egress standards is typically alarms, which help to notify people if a fire is underway.
Usually, whatever agency sets building code in a state or country, verifies that a building (whether residential unit/s, commercial or industrial) appropriately meets fire egress standards. When buildings are designed, architects and others must bear in mind any code so that a building will pass inspection. Periodically code may change to meet new standards, which could require some changes on the part of commercial/industrial buildings especially. Alternately, owners of a building may be asked to bring their structure up to code if they are doing anything that prevents fire egress (like blocking an exit with a file cabinet).
On a smaller scale fire egress can also mean developing exit strategies on the home front for leaving a house during a fire. It is wise to develop these and local fire departments may be very useful in this respect. Making sure everyone has a plan in place if a fire occurs in a home really can save lives, especially if egress strategies are practiced from time to time.