Preventing Shack Fires in UT Gardens with Lumkani Fire Detector

By 23rd Jul 2014 CORC, ISN

By Yolande Hendler (on behalf of CORC)

Vuyani Ntontela and Thamara Hela are community leaders in UT Gardens, an informal settlement of about 400 structures in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. UT Gardens forms part of UT section in Khayelitsha’s Site B. Since the community was introduced to the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) in 2013, Thamara explains that UT Gardens has been organising itself for upgrading. Yet she also speaks of one of the biggest challenges the community faces: on-going fires that ravage homes and livelihoods, the most recent of which occurred last month.

UT Gardens Community leaders with Lumkani. From left to right: Phatiswa Nzima, Thamara Hela, Emily Vining, Ntombentle Qinga

UT Gardens Community leaders with Lumkani. From left to right: Phatiswa Nzima, Thamara Hela, Emily Vining, Ntombentle Qinga

Since March 2014 Vuyani (chairperson of UT Gardens), Thamara and the rest of UT Gardens’ leadership committee (15 in total) have been building a relationship with ‘Lumkani’, a social enterprise that is focussed on overcoming the challenge of shack fires in urban informal settlements. Lumkani has been developing a device that acts as an early-warning alert against shack fires.

The Lumkani device

The Lumkani device uses heat detection technology instead of smoke detection (not suited for the shack environment given the heating, lighting and cooking methods that take place in homes) to sense for fires. As a heat detector it accurately measures the incidence of harmful fires, alerting the family inside the shack of the danger. Each device is networked to surrounding devices within a 100m radius. In the event of a fire, the detecting device will send a signal to surrounding devices within this range. A solid beep means that the device has detected a fire in your own home whereas a broken beep indicates that the fire is in the nearby surrounding. A wave of sound creates a community-wide alert and response to danger. This buys time for the community to become proactive in rapidly spreading fire risk situations. Emily Vining, who facilitates Lumkani’s community interaction, explains that

“The networked functionality of the device is a way to confront the challenge of density and the rapid spread of fire. The devices are networked because it is not enough for one person to be alerted – everyone needs to be alerted. As a device Lumkani intends to stop the spread of fire through a community-wide response. It is most effective in communities with a strong leadership who can create strategies to respond to fire”

The Lumkani device

The Lumkani device

Building the relationship between UT Gardens and Lumkani

Thamara remembers how UT Gardens first heard about Lumkani through ISN and the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC).

 “When I heard about Lumkani I liked it. Because I am a mobiliser I proposed it to the other leaders. When we first met with Lumkani, they explained the fire detection device to us and asked if the community wants to be one of their pilot communities. As leaders we also liked the project. But we first called a general meeting to check with the community. They accepted the idea because we have a problem with fires. We meet with Lumkani every week to share our plans with each other. ”

(Thamara Hela, UT Gardens community leader)

Emily explains how Lumkani first met Thamara and the UT Gardens leadership in December 2013. From February/ March 2014 Lumkani met with UT Gardens leadership weekly to grow a relationship. David Gluckman, Lumkani’s financial director, explains that

“from the earliest phase of the project we met with community leaders and sought out their input – which had direct implications on the design of the device and its functionality – after all nobody knows the fire situation in informal settlements better than the people living there”

Emily elaborates that Lumkani was interested in developing the device through a deep-participatory approach that values horizontal learning. This means: inclusive design solutions and continuous innovation driven by testing and feedback. Both Emily and David emphasise how the community’s guidance was key, especially during on-site meetings with Max Basler, Lumkani’s industrial designer and Samuel Ginsberg, Lumkani’s technical director. It was during the first meetings with the community that the Lumkani team became aware of the need for a community wide and –networked device that could share information as fast as possible. Apart from on-site meetings, Lumkani formalised its community research in a short 12 question survey distributed to about 70 households in order to better understand how the community is affected by and responds to shack fires.


Making plans to install 10 test devices last week


Measuring out the distance between structures for installing the test devices

Looking forward

At the moment the device is in a general testing phase – which includes technology tests and a sound test that took place last week, for which the first ten devices were installed. The pilot is set to begin in October 2014 and will seek to test 2000 devices in four high fire risk communities in Cape Town, one of which is UT Gardens.

Thinking back of the past months of working together with Lumkani, Thamara shares,

“Since we started our relationship with Lumkani I would like to say that they are doing a good job. What I like about Lumkani is that after we have a meeting, we see things happening on the ground. Even when people from other settlements in Site B visit me and see the fire detector they like what Lumkani is doing”

(Thamara Hela, UT Gardens community leader)

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