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Fire safety engineering guideline for informal settlements: Towards practical solutions for a complex problem in South Africa

Stellenbosch University

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South Africa


Disaster Risk Reduction, Fire Safety

Informal settlements are growing rapidly, and in Africa they are likely to double in size within the coming few decades. Informal settlements (IS) (also known by names such as slums, ghettos, favelas and shantytowns) are typically dense, and people’s homes are built from highly combustible materials. Hence, when a fire breaks out it can spread rapidly, leaving thousands homeless. Every year in South Africa fires are affecting large numbers of people, costing municipalities millions of rands (ZAR), and are severely hindering the upliftment of the poorest in our communities.

This guideline seeks to provide a holistic approach to improving fire safety for communities. It is important to realise that this complex problem can only be improved by a multi-sectoral response addressing various issues such as: reducing the risk of ignition, providing early warning systems, having community involvement, having well-resourced and well-prepared fire departments, reducing the combustible nature of homes, and many other similar factors.

The audience of this report is broad in that it seeks to assist fire departments, local municipalities, national government, engineers, town planners and non-governmental organisations involved in IS fire safety. This work initially provides an understanding of communities living in settlements, as often interventions overlook the daily reality of these people which leads to interventions being ineffective. Fire behaviour, fire spread and fire safety engineering is then discussed, and it is shown how this can be applied to ISs. This is done to dispel many common myths, and to show what can, and can’t, improve fire safety.

To understand IS fire incidents a timeline of a typical fire incident is provided, along with a case study on the 2017 Imizamo Yethu disaster. Many interventions, strategies and devices are discussed, looking at what could be adopted to improve fire safety. It is important to realise that a basket of solutions is typically needed, and a single intervention may have a very limited impact. A list of tasks that communities can undertake before, during and after a fire incident provides a useful resource for organisations working with communities. Ultimately there is no easy solution to this problem. However, through a concerted, evidence-based approach significant fire safety improvements can be made to help the poorest in our land.

Co-authors include: Richard Walls, Antonio Cicione, Robyn Pharoah, Patricia Zweig, Mark Smith, Danielle Antonellis

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