Stellenbosch university students and staff installing smoke alarms to commemorate IDDR 2017

To commemorate IDDR 2017, students and staff from Stellenbosch University joined forces with Cape Winelands Municipality, local disaster management, and fire firefighters to install smoke alarms within low-income houses and informal backyard dwellings in Klapmuts, a small  town in the Stellenbosch Municipality. The initiative forms of part of a campaign launched in terms of the Western Cape Government’s Strategic Framework for Fire and Burn Injury Prevention.

Financed by Santam, a private sector insurance company, the alarms were installed for free in  local households willing to try out this technology. Although smoke alarms have been successfully reducing fire deaths and fire-related injuries across, the world, they have never been used in informal contexts before. Consequently this campaign is an exciting global first for researching and extending smoke alarms en masse to informal residential sectors. It aims to reduce the risk of residential fires among impoverished communities where fire is a constant threat to their lives and livelihoods.

  

The alarms, which were selected after stringent testing by the University’s engineering department, are designed to detect smoke emitted from something burning. Upon sensing smoke, the alarm will emit a high pitched sound continuously at 85 Decibels, a level specifically designed to be loud enough to wake someone asleep and to alert neighbouring households. As such it provides an early warning providing residents with time to evacuate or to extinguish a fire in its smouldering stage, before flames occur before . Science has shown that most fire fatalities are casued by smoke inhalation during the sleeping hours when olfactory senses are unable to detect smoke. The alarm has a built-in lithium battery, which is guaranteed to power the device for up to 10 years and thus poses no cost to the householder.

 

From approximately 11am to 2pm, Stellenbosch university Students and Staff accompanied firefighters door to door offering a free installation of smoke alarms in their dwelling. Each alarm was strategically placed within the structure where the alarm will be activated in the event of smoke or steam being detected in the dwelling. During installation of the alarms students together with firefighters explained to residents the process of activating, maintaining and deactivating the devices in case of a false alarm. Most recipients of the alarms distributed on the 13th were those residing in so-called informal backyard dwellings, which are typically prone to fires due to the small and highly flammable nature of their construction, the presence of unsafe energy sources such as paraffin, informal electrical connections, as well as their isolated location behind garden walls and fences, preventing early warning and assistance from neighbours. Over the next few weeks, local fire fighters will be installing more smoke alarms, ensuring all willing households are fitted with alarms.

 The project initially started in 2016 with the Wallacedene Smoke Alarm project, a multi-stakeholder collaboration between the University of Stellenbosch, the Western Cape Provincial Disaster Management: Fire & Rescue Services and the Wallacedene TRA informal settlement community. In 2016, after vigorous testing of various fire and smoke alarms by the Structural Engineering Department at Stellenbosch, the Western Cape Provincial Disaster Management, Fire & Rescue Services it was determined to identify a pilot site in which to test the efficacy and social acceptability of smoke alarms at household level to reduce the number of fire-related fatalities and burn injuries. The installation of alarms was preceded by a household survey to establish both general household information and their fire histories to allow for a retrospective study of change over time. One of the primary aims of the project was to understand the social behaviour of an informal settlement community related to the use of smoke alarms in their homes, identifying areas for improving the use, design and installation of smoke alarm technology in such environments.

Already, the project shows huge potential for reducing the frequency and destructive potential of fire. Usually prone to fire during the winter months, there has only been one small single-dwelling fire in the settlement this winter that was caught in time due to the activation of a smoke alarm that alerted neighbours who saved the life of a sleeping man. Several other fires have been averted due to smoke alarm activations to which neighbours timeously responded.

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