POST TIME: 13 March, 2018 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 13 March, 2018 12:06:48 AM
Fire risk in slum areas
For increasing fire preparedness, conventional smoke detectors are not suitable in slum environments
Bipasha Dutta

Fire risk in slum areas

According to the Disaster Risk Index 2016, Bangladesh is the fifth  most vulnerable country to disasters in the world. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, over 4,500 houses have been destroyed and 22 people killed from slum fires since 2010. In many cases, slum fires are not reported and therefore these figures can be considered conservative. The existing physical, economic and social vulnerabilities of slum residents make them highly susceptible to disasters often resulting in loss of lives and assets. Unplanned city growth and poor infrastructure makes it challenging for relevant authorities to respond and manage urban slum fires.

Fires particularly in slums are common because of the typically flammable building materials in slums, (timber, bamboo, etc) fires ignite and spread easily, especially during the hot dry season (March-May). It is also noted that because of the high density, fire fighting and evacuation are very difficult and it is common for slum residents to lose household assets and belongings, an adversity that the poor are ill-prepared to deal with.

Various reports also suggest that such fires are intentionally lit to evict slum residents, or are a result of feuds between maastan gangs. It is also a considerable fact that local goons who control such slums on regular payment of rent may have their hands to evacuate the land to force dwellers to renegotiate their right to dwelling with fresh advances. Powerful people may also be involved in such arson to make the slum empty to sell land or build new shopping or residential housings. In most cases it is the powerful people holding such land under their possession in the city renting to slum dwellers. They drive them away when it is so needed and setting fire is a most common practice to evacuate land.  

In a  recent study conducted (by World Vision Bangladesh) in two of the most vulnerable slums to fire risks in Dhaka- Karail and Kallyanpur, 100 percent respondents from both slum identified fire as the major hazard for them. The study found that 30.8 percent household in Kallyanpur area and 75.5 percent household in Karail area were affected from fire during the recent past. The major losses from fire were identified as burning of houses (97 percent), destroyed educational institution (43 percent), damage of household utensil (28 percent) and death (10 percent).

Nurunnnhar Begum (age 35) has been living in Karail since 1997 with three children and husband experienced fire twice. In 2017, she lost her houses and all the household materials for fire. She said,

“I could not explain the feeling, fear and helpless situation when I saw my house was burning in front of me. I lost power to speak and could not think where to stay, how to manage food for my children and how to survive.”

In the last ten years, housing and materials of around 20 million BDT were destroyed in Kallyanpur and Karail. In Karail, the average amount of economic loss was BDT 30000 for each family till December 2017. The household survey data reveals that fire mainly originated from kitchen (86.0 percent), electric short circuits, worn-out wires and faulty switches (65.0 percent), mosquito coils (28.8 percent), lit cigarettes (27.1 percent) and leakage of gas pipeline (11.9 percent).

For combating fire, the respondents mention about establishing early warning systems; building capacity of the community on fire emergency preparedness and response; and enhancing slum fire awareness. The study found that only 6 percent respondent of Kallyanpur area and 2 percent respondent of Karail area have ever received any training on fire management. In Kallyanpur, there is no fire detector, while in Karail, 99 percent of the household has no fire detector. 79 and 72 percent of the respondents from Karail and Kallyanpur do not know the emergency contact number of Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence (BFSCD).

BFSCD is the legitimate authority responsible for mitigating fire hazards, rescuing people, training community volunteers and providing first aid to the affected people. Even if fire stations are nearby, given Dhaka’s incessant traffic congestions and narrow roads in slums, it proves almost impossible for fire wagons to reach the site on time. It takes 10 minutes to even120 minutes for BFSCD to reach both in Kallyanpur and Karail.

BFSCD is also characterised by weak equipment, poor technology and inadequate man power. Despite drawback, it has 18 fire stations in the city and an average of 35 fire fighters in each station. However, backdated organogram of BFSCD, the increased population coupled with limited enforcement of building construction rules or regulations and unplanned growth of urban centres and increasing number of slums resulted acute risk of fire incidents in Dhaka city.

Also, under the Social welfare and Slum Development Department of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC), there is a Slum Development Wing which looks after the housing and shelter for the slum and squatter dwellers and takes care of urban disasters like as fire hazards and other critical issues in its areas. However, considering the emerging need of increasing fire preparedness in the slum areas, they have limited capacity.

For increasing fire preparedness, conventional smoke detectors are not suitable in slum environments due to the smoke generated by cooking, businesses and burning litter. Therefore, up until now slum fire risk reduction activities have focused on behaviour change, emergency planning, and risk minimisation in Bangladesh. However, till date there have been no suitable early warning systems that enable a rapid communitywide response.

Overcoming this limitation, World Vision Bangladesh in collaboration BFSCD, DNCC and Lumkani (a social enterprise in South Africa) funded by Google foundation facilitated installation of Lumkani fire detector for 30000 people of 3300 household in Karail and Kallanpur slums through slum fire readiness project (winner of Google impact challenges). This project uses an innovative system of radio networked heat-sensing fire detectors to provide accurate and timely warning of slum fires enabling an informed and rapid response from community and municipality fire response teams.

In the event of a detected fire, an audible alarm is triggered within the household. If the alarm is not manually deactivated by a household member within 20 seconds, all fire detectors within a 40-meter radius will be alerted and SMS messages can be sent to registered community members, creating a rapid community wide warning. The GPS coordinates of the fire can then be sent to community and BFSCD.

The devices, specially designed for the slums have been successfully trailed in the slums of South Africa since 2014. This initiative will reduce the spread of fire, loss and damage in the slum areas of Bangladesh and may also contribute in the progression of digital Bangladesh by mitigating fire risk in slum areas in collaboration with BFSCD and DNCC.

The writer is National Coordinator- Knowledge Management, Research and Innovation World Vision Bangladesh