Fire detectors can help to prevent shack fires

| Fergus Turner
A Khusela prototype. Photo courtesy of Francois Petousis.

Shack fires are an unremitting scourge facing urban townships. In South Africa, between 2000 and 2010, over 230 000 people were made homeless by fires. Growing urban populations together with inadequate services, in particular electricity and water, means urban shack fires will continue to take their toll. There is an urgent need for effective solutions to address the major causes.

Last year, the City responded to 1,177 fire incidents in informal settlements around Cape Town. According to the City 3,480 shacks were damaged or destroyed and 105 lives lost in 2012 alone.

On New Year’s day (2013), a fire broke out in the BM section of Khayelitsha. More than 4,000 people were left homeless; at least four residents lost their lives.

This incident brought light to a project run by Samuel Ginsberg, an electrical engineering lecturer at the University of Cape Town, to develop a fire detector. Final year engineering student, Francois Petousis, took it on as a thesis project.

Petousis wanted to develop a cheap fire detector that could be mass produced.

“Many fires are started by candles, paraffin lighting, and cooking devices. These devices are sometimes left on at night while people are sleeping, and can often be knocked over,” said Petousis.

Shack fires get out of hand because there is no early warning

“People are often not aware of the fire when it begins, and that is when the fire can be fought more easily. What makes this detector a distinctively effective solution is that, when detecting a fire, it emits a low frequency sound that is at a pitch that was recently shown in studies to be most effective at waking people.”

“The sound is distressing and makes the body react. It is an extremely effective alarm.” If a detector goes off in one shack, the pitch is powerful enough to alert neighbouring shack dwellers.

The device is smaller than the palm of the hand and is being called Khusela (meaning “protect” or “defend” in Xhosa). It can be mass produced at a cost of just under R10 per device. The detector, which is durable, can be hung or attached easily from any surface inside a shack and the prototype has a battery life of four years.

“Other fire detection technologies were not suited to a township environment,” said Petousis

Available smoke detecting technologies are designed to be highly sensitive to the slightest presence of smoke. This would be useless in a township environment, which is normally smoky. Other technologies are also more expensive and use removable batteries, which isn’t ideal in a low resourced community. What the Khusela does is sense rapid changes in temperature and then it activates.

A report, prepared by the City of Cape Town, for a Fire Safety Symposium in February corroborates Petousis’ assertion that many fires occur at night when people may be sleeping or unaware. The document reports that most fires are reported between 9pm and 3am.

Other solutions have also been put forward. Working on Fire, a Johannesburg organization, is calling for the use of foam bombs — non-harmful chemical foam that suffocates the oxygen supply to fires and is dropped from the air.

Fire detection by camera has been suggested by the City as another possible strategy

The City Disaster and Management department are focusing on the provision of ‘first strike’ firefighting skills and safety awareness programs.

The department says that fires are mostly accidental, often caused by negligent use of dangerous cooking or heating devices, and as a result of alcohol and substance abuse. Other major causes are illegal electrical connections.

Whereas many solutions emphasize effective fire fighting, the Khusela aims at prevention. The value of this approach was shown in the US, where the introduction of fire detectors for households led to a 50% decrease in home fires after several years.

Petousis hopes to provide fire detectors for most informal settlements in and around Cape Town, and later countrywide.

“We are in the process of finding the best means to distribute them, but the biggest challenge is to find funding for the mass production of these detectors,” he said. “This project is non-profit, but we need funding to pay for the production and distribution. If we get funding we may operate as an NPO, otherwise a contract from a government department could allow us to take this project out to settlements. Getting the Khusela out to people is our chief priority at this stage”.

Shack fires present a very real threat to residents of informal settlements and any measures to prevent them should be taken seriously.

To contact The Khusela project for further information or support: fire.khusela [at]

TOPICS:  Housing Local government

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