By Thandeka Tshabalala (on behalf of CORC).
September-April marks the Western Cape Fire season. The eight months period has the highest record of fire disasters due to a number of reasons but mainly negligence and lack of fire prevention education. Throughout these times, informal settlement dwellers sit in panic and uncertainty of when a devastating fire may strike their settlement costing them their belongings and in worst cases their lives. Urban fires are amongst the highest disaster occurrences in informal settlements,and need to be addressed.
When fires break out in informal settlement they spread fast and the community takes longer to be alerted . Evacuations are often dangerous and depending on the density in these settlements emergency responders often are unable to access homes in time. In July 2015 the South African SDI Alliance, South African Red Cross Society (SACRS) and American Red Cross Society formed partnership with Lumkani to roll out early detection fire sensor devices targeting 1000 households in 4 informal settlements (UT, TT, TB section and WB) located in site B, Khayelitsha. The purpose of the project is to reduce fire risks by increasing community resilience against shack fires. The introduction of early warning devices in communities contributes to alerting communities early to avoid fire from spreading . Another benefit of the project is formulating of fire response plans and capacitation of disaster response teams within the community.
A baseline study and GIS mapping exercise formed part of the first crucial steps of information gathering of the project. 30 community volunteers were trained in conducting community surveys and GIS mapping. The community surveys aimed at gathering first hand information on previous instances of fires. With questions ranging from fuel used for cooking, heating,lighting to how the community responded to fires. This included identifying nearest fire hydrants and emergency exists in the informal settlement. Key informants and focus group interviews gave an in-depth understanding of the existing fire response mechanisms taken by community leaders and disaster relief organizations.
The GIS map marking access points in the settlements and hierarchy of routes classifies movement within the settlements starting from vehicle access to footpaths forms part of the analysis. Once the community has verified the map it will then be used as a tool to better understand the community access points that could be of use during emergencies. After analysis and feedback from community members the baseline study will be used to inform future plans for fire response and mitigation.
Imbizos (i.e. community gatherings) were platforms used by communities to participate and give feedback on the project. Councilors of ward 90 and 91 Luvuyo Hebe and Monde Mabandla together with emergency respondents such as the police and fire departments came in high numbers to support this initiative.During the launch of the project on the 26th August 2015 Detective Mandlana showed appreciation to the South African Red cross and Informal Settlement Network (ISN) for the project and urged the community to use the Lumkani devices.
“Safety starts by individuals taking precautions all the time”.
Detective Mandlana from the Police department.
To strengthen the existing disaster response mechanisms in the community, 40 community members were trained in first aid (I, II &III) and fire fighting. The community response team is equipped to assess possible disasters and also be prepared to respond to any disaster occurring in their community.The community response teams have a lifetime commitment to the community because they can help improve the safety of their communities.
“ In the middle of a disaster, these are the people who will be able to say they are here to help, give critical support and assist victims before the arrival of emergency services.”
This project forms part of a long-term objective which includes decreasing urban fires and strengthening the impact of the Lumkani early warning device. The device acts as an early warning system in the community, decreasing the time taken by the community to be alerted in cases of fires, with addition of the response team the community is well positioned to deal with shack fires while waiting for emergency services. This intervention was informed by the profiling and enumeration data captured by the communities to understand the community priority needs. The long term upgrading strategy would be the addition of planned preventative measures such as opening up streets and open spaces for emergency evacuations and access of emergency services.