This Simple Sensor Stops Fires in Crowded Communities

by Mark Hay

December 15, 2015
Khayelitsha Township in South Africa. Image by Chell Hill via Wikimedia Commons.

This spring, a shack in an informal settlement in the Philippines’ capital, Manila, caught fire. The flames quickly spread between the settlement’s dense, poorly constructed homes, consuming almost 10 acres of the neighborhood and displacing up to 12,000 people within hours. The widely reported fire was a tragedy. But it was also far from unusual. That same day, another (albeit smaller) shack fire broke out in another Philippine city’s slums. Worldwide, every year hundreds to thousands of fires break out in densely packed slums, where up to a billion people (or 70 percent of the world’s urban population) live in virtual tinderboxes that are lighted, heated, and provisioned with open fires or shoddy wiring. Shack fires are hardly the only challenge faced by people living in slums, who often live under regular threat of crime and disease, usually on top of other poverty-related issues. But especially given how difficult it is for emergency responders to operate in these environments and how little incentive some governments feel to address these marginalized peoples’ concerns, these conflagrations are almost always catastrophic. And for many who live in such settlements, the fires have come to feel like an inevitability—a horrific fact of life that that they must simply accept and forever dread.

Yet thanks to a group of inventors in South Africa, where as much as 11 percent of the population lives in shacks and fast-moving fires spread easily in dry and windy summer months (these conflagrations displaced 240,000 people and destroyed 70,000 homes in the nation from 2000 to 2010), shack fires may soon lose some of their menace. Over the past three years, the team has developed a modified, networked fire alarm system known as Lumkani (Xosha for “Beware”). The system is designed to alert neighbors, emergency responders, and entire informal communities to fires faster and more efficiently than traditional smoke detectors. With thousands of their little blue boxes in the field already, Lumkani seems on the precipice of exploding throughout South Africa and beyond, drastically improving the safety and security of hundreds of millions of the world’s most marginalized peoples.

Image by Lumkani via Indiegogo

The seed of Lumkani was sown one morning in 2012, when Samuel Ginsberg, an electrical engineering instructor at the University of Cape Town, heard about a shack fire in a local informal settlement. Drawn toward socially conscious projects and aware of the fact that most slums lack fire detection systems, he invited his honors students to join a project to develop a low-cost alarm system. Francois Petousis took up the challenge—and kept up with it even while on a gap year in 2013. At first he was focused on developing a cheap smoke detector, but quickly he and Ginsberg realized that the use of open flames in many shacks made that solution impractical—precisely why many traditional devices just don’t cut it in these communities. So they decided to get creative, realizing that they could instead use a cheap sensor that would detect a rapid rise in temperature (which usually correlates to fires) and respond with a loud, sustained warning note if the temperature was not quickly reduced.

Eventually the inventors and their growing team of collaborators took their original product to UT Gardens, a 400-plus-shack settlement in the larger Cape Town slum of Khayelitsha, to see what locals thought of it. They were excited, agreeing to a partnership to test the devices, but suggested a few modifications. Namely, they wanted to make sure that the entire community, not just one person, was aware of a fire outbreak so that they could all confirm its existence, prevent it from spreading, and call in rapid response services to specific GPS coordinates. Ginsberg, Petousis, and their colleagues obliged, creating radio frequency networks within their device that allow it to send signals to other devices within a 325-foot radius. The device’s signals trigger alarms within 20 seconds of first detection, allowing neighbors to respond. If they cannot control or mitigate the fire, then they can at least authenticate it and quickly call in firefighter services. Over the course of 2014, the team managed to score some seed money from a startup incubator, deploy a few hundred devices throughout UT Gardens, and prove by trial that this networking system could combat the problem of slum density. In fact, the system prevented a fire outbreak within weeks of first installation—the first of many fires that locals have been able to put out thanks to Lumkani alerts over the past year. And they proved that they could do all of this on the cheap, providing the devices (which last years on the charge of a single commercial battery) for less than $10 each—and even less with NGO subsidies.

Lumkani’s success and promise have garnered the project a lot of attention over the past few months. The design team has scored a ton of prestigious regional and international awards and cash prizes, and raised more than twice their goal in an Indiegogo campaign to fund an initial mass production run. With thousands of devices in the field, many more orders placed, and solid attention in venture, tech, and local South African media outlets, they’re poised to take off in a serious way. Already they’re looking to develop partnerships with the South African government to spread beyond Cape Town and its environs, deploying the devices throughout the nation’s slums to create critical mass protection against the spread of fire. After that, they plan to move on to nations that have even larger slums and massive fire problems like India, Kenya, and Nigeria. As they do, they’ll open up a new level of protection to numerous peoples who’ve long been underserved by innovators in even their most basic needs. We can only hope that this revelation—that you can cheaply create technological solutions that address the symptoms of poverty—will inspire similar advances to mitigate other health and safety concerns in informal settlements. Such similar innovations may not fix everything that ails slum residents. But these kinds of inventions could at least make life in these settlements more livable until governments and states can address the chronic problems undergirding the woes of slums—which only governments can truly and permanently solve.

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This Simple Sensor Stops Fires in Crowded Communities