Social aspects of fire engineering – fire safety in informal settlements

A novel research partnership at the University of Edinburgh is seeking funding to tackle an age-old but neglected fire safety problem of global importance – fire safety in informal settlements. The research partnership has been initiated by the Ove Arup Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng). It involves Senior Research Fellow Dr Graham Spinardi from the Ove Arup Foundation/RAEng, Arup Chair of Fire and Structures Professor Luke Bisby, and Rushbrook Lecturer in Fire Investigation Dr Rory Hadden.

Deaths and injuries due to fire have reduced dramatically in the UK and other developed countries over the last few decades. Fire safety engineers can of course take some (but not all) of the credit for this. Although the exact reasons are hard to definitively pinpoint, other important factors for reducing fires and their impacts include the work of fire brigades and others in promoting the use of smoke alarms, the development and regulation of less flammable household products, and even the rise of the oven chip (meaning fewer chip pan fires!). With better-engineered buildings and continual advancements in the fire safety engineering profession as the built environment continually innovates and evolves, annual fire deaths have dropped in the developed world – for example in England, annual fire deaths have dropped from 700 in 1981-82 to 275 in 2013-14.

Although there have been significant advancements in fire safety across developed countries, fire remains a more serious problem in many other parts of the world, especially for the estimated one billion people who live in informal settlements. These are known variously – the name depending on global region – as shanty towns, bidonvilles, townships, barrios and favelas. Urban conflagrations are a thing of the past in the developed world – past examples include the Great Fire of London in 1666, the Baltimore Fire in 1904 and the San Francisco Earthquake Fire in 1906. However, large fires still occur regularly in informal settlements. For example 2,000 large fires occur monthly in shanty towns in South Africa, thousands of people have been left homeless after fires in Sao Paulo favelas in recent years, and 10,000 were left homeless after a fire in a Manila shanty town in March 2015. The resilience of these communities against fire (and other hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and landslides) remains very low, with the potential for dramatic loss of life and property high. The impacts of fires and other hazards also leads to damage to social structures and local economies, hindering long-term economic development and helping to perpetuate a cycle of poverty and global inequality.

Langa, Cape Town - aftermath of fire in March 2012 (Source: City of Cape Town, Fire and Rescue Service)

This problem seems intractable because informal settlements are, by their very nature, lacking in many of the key features that have reduced fire casualties and damage in the developed world. Organized fire fighting services, reliable water mains, and enforced building regulations could greatly reduce the impact of fires on informal settlements – as they demonstrably have over centuries in the developed world – but exhortations to take such measures amount largely to empty gestures when there seems little realistic prospect of their implementation.

Instead, perhaps it is necessary to address the problem in ways that do not rely entirely on the traditional tools of civic governance. For example, does the apparent success of widespread use of smoke alarms in the UK and elsewhere indicate one potential approach to the problem – the development and dissemination of some device or technology that will reduce the incidence or impact of fires in informal settlements? Such technical fixes have the appeal that cheap, mass-produced devices could provide a blanket solution to the problem of fire in informal settlements. Whilst workable solutions clearly cannot be purely technological, one such promising invention proposed in South Africa is the wirelessly networked Lumkani heat detector, which offers an inexpensive fire alarm suitable for habitations where sooty fires for cooking and heating are commonplace. Or, in some cases, might there be a greater role for insurance providers, even in these informal settlements, to give incentives for better fire safety practices (a key driver for fire safety improvements in much of Europe and North America prior to the 20th Century)?

Such proposals face multiple challenges because they must work (i.e. be feasible and efficacious) both technically and socially. A central technical challenge is that the close spacing of buildings in informal settlements and the widespread use of flammable construction and cladding materials, and the resultant high risk of fire spread and conflagration, means that solutions adopted by individual households may have limited collective benefits. The core challenge socially is that informal settlements differ greatly from place to place, with some having higher social cohesion and/or greater levels of employment and incomes than others. Building practices, the level of government intervention, regulation and enforcement, and lifestyle also vary greatly.

All of this means that any approach to address fire risks in informal settlements based solely on the dissemination of a ‘technical fix’ may be misguided because it ignores the importance of social context (e.g. in the case of a heat detector an important consideration is whether occupants would accept and maintain such devices or regularly heed their warnings). The various informal settlements around the world have many similarities, but also many important differences. This matters not just because social context is likely to affect the way that technical solutions are adopted and used, but also because many aspects of fire safety are fundamentally social in their nature.

For this reason, Spinardi, Bisby, and Hadden are now proposing a more radical approach to investigating the potential for technical innovation through a demand-side orientated analysis, focused on the social and material particularities of informal settlements. To identify potential socio-technical solutions, the proposed methodology uses historical analogy in which the fire problem in different current informal settlements is understood in relation to how earlier settlements developed ways of improving fire safety. Spinardi, Bisby, and Hadden are interested in two fundamental questions:

Question 1: How was the fire problem solved as the developed world developed?

While many improvements in fire safety can be traced to fire disasters (such as the Great Fire of London) that resulted in government action to impose building regulations, such centralized governance was only one factor in improving fire safety as cities developed. Private initiatives were also important. Indeed, many early fire-fighting services were established by insurance companies, with municipal fire brigades only emerging during the 19th century. And insurance companies not only sought to extinguish fires in properties covered by their insurance, but also to effect loss mitigation by requiring customers to follow rules as regarding the construction and use of property.   Inside view of housing in Kliptown, Soweto (Source: Tim Vickers)

Increasing wealth too was an important factor in reducing conflagrations in 19th century cities, as people could afford to build with less flammable materials, and importantly, to have larger lot sizes with greater spacing between properties.

However, it is still necessary to understand better how earlier settlements evolved and addressed fire risks. The research team at the University of Edinburgh plan to carry out detailed historical case studies, chosen to provide comparative insights whilst covering a wide range of relevant variables. Many fire safety solutions are now seen as universal and context-independent, but such a framing fails to capture their historically specific origins and differing implementations. These case studies will provide rich accounts of how technical and social innovations have improved fire safety, thereby suggesting potential solutions for current informal settlements.

Question 2: What are the fire risks in current informal settlements, and what socio-technical innovations are compatible with their material and social circumstances?

Detailed studies of informal settlements are planned in South Africa, India, and Brazil, where significant differences are expected to enable comparative analysis. Spinardi, Bisby, and Hadden hypothesise that the feasibility of fire safety solutions will be affected by variations in social relations, modes of governance, community engagement, and material circumstances.

It is hoped that developing an in-depth understanding of the social contexts specific to each informal settlement, along with findings from historical case studies of how fire safety developed in earlier settlements, will enable assessment of a range of potential solutions, such as heat detectors, safer cooking stoves, or more integrated solutions such as vegetable fire-walls or sprinkler fire-breaks.

Informal settlement, Cape Town (Source: Richard Walls, Stellenbosch University)

With these two lines of inquiry we hope to be able to provide a range of useful suggestions as to how the problem of fire in informal settlements can be tackled. However, as with most fire deaths in the developed world, it is clear that improving socio-economic circumstances is probably the best solution, for this, as well as for other reasons.



For further informaion please contact Dr Graham Spinardi, Ove Arup Foundation/Royal Academy of Engineering Senior Research Fellow in Integrating Technical and Social Aspects of Fire Safety (E-mail:

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