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HEALTH & SAFETY, FIRE ENGINEERING, INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT Social aspects of fire engineering – fire safety

in informal settlements A novel research partnership at the University of Edinburgh is seeking funding to tackle an age-old but neglected fire safety problem of global importance – fire safety in informal settlements. The research partnership has been initiated by the Ove Arup Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng). It involves Senior Research Fellow Dr Graham Spinardi from the Ove Arup Foundation/RAEng, Arup Chair of Fire and Structures Professor Luke Bisby, and Rushbrook Lecturer in Fire Investigation Dr Rory Hadden.


eaths and injuries due to fire have reduced dramatically in the UK and other developed countries over the last few decades. Fire safety engineers can of course take some (but not all) of the credit for this. Although the exact reasons are hard to definitively pinpoint, other important factors for reducing fires and their impacts include the work of fire brigades and others in promoting the use

Langa : Zone 17, 19 & 20 – Destruction of Fire on Monday, 05 March 2012

world – past examples include the Great Fire of London in 1666, the Baltimore Fire in 1904 and the San Francisco Earthquake Fire in 1906. However, large fires still occur regularly in informal settlements. For example 2,000 large fires occur monthly in shanty towns in South Africa, thousands of people have been left homeless after fires in Sao Paulo favelas in recent years, and 10,000 were left homeless after a fire in a

gestures when there seems little realistic prospect of their implementation. Instead, perhaps it is necessary to address the problem in ways that do not rely entirely on the traditional tools of civic governance. For example, does the apparent success of widespread use of smoke alarms in the UK and elsewhere indicate one potential approach to the problem – the development and dissemination of some

Langa, Cape Town - aftermath of fire in March 2012 (Source: City of Cape Town, Fire and Rescue Service)

of smoke alarms, the development and regulation of less flammable household products, and even the rise of the oven chip (meaning fewer chip pan fires!). With better-engineered buildings and continual advancements in the fire safety engineering profession as the built environment continually innovates and evolves, annual fire deaths have dropped in the developed world – for example in England, annual fire deaths have dropped from 700 in 1981-82 to 275 in 2013-14.

Although there have been significant advancements in fire safety across developed countries, fire remains a more serious problem in many other parts of the world, especially for the estimated one billion people who live in informal settlements. These are known variously – the name depending on global region – as shanty towns, bidonvilles, townships, barrios and favelas. Urban conflagrations are a thing of the past in the developed


Manila shanty town in March 2015. The resilience of these communities against fire (and other hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and landslides) remains very low, with the potential for dramatic loss of life and property high. The impacts of fires and other hazards also leads to damage to social structures and local economies, hindering long-term economic development and helping to perpetuate a cycle of poverty and global inequality. This problem seems intractable because informal settlements are, by their very nature, lacking in many of the key features that have reduced fire casualties and damage in the developed world. Organised fire fighting services, reliable water mains, and enforced building regulations could greatly reduce the impact of fires on informal settlements – as they demonstrably have over centuries in the developed world – but exhortations to take such measures amount largely to empty

Innovation & Research Focus Issue 103 NOVEMBER 2015

device or technology that will reduce the incidence or impact of fires in informal settlements? Such technical fixes have the appeal that cheap, mass- produced devices could provide a blanket solution to the problem of fire in informal settlements. Whilst workable solutions clearly cannot be purely technological, one such promising invention proposed in South Africa is the wirelessly networked Lumkani heat detector, which offers an inexpensive fire alarm suitable for habitations where sooty fires for cooking and

heating are commonplace. Or, in some cases, might there be a greater role for insurance providers, even in these informal settlements, to give incentives for better fire safety practices (a key driver for fire safety improvements in much of Europe and North America prior to the 20th century)? Such proposals face multiple challenges because they must work (i.e. be feasible and efficacious) both technically and socially. A central technical challenge is that the close spacing of buildings in informal settlements and the widespread use of flammable construction and cladding materials, and the resultant high risk of fire spread and conflagration, means that solutions adopted by individual households may have limited collective benefits. The core challenge socially is that informal settlements differ greatly from place to place, with some having higher social cohesion and/or greater levels of employment and incomes than others. Building practices, the level of

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