Campaign helps to reduce fire deaths

Safety and security mayoral committee member JP Smith in Asanda Village.

The City of Cape Town’s efforts over the last few years to reduce the fire mortality rate in informal settlements and backyard dwellings has borne fruit, according to mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith.

Mr Smith spoke to Bolander during the City’s disaster risk management awareness event, at Asanda Village in Strand on
Thursday: “We have reduced our fire mortality rate from 7.9 per 100 000 to 3.6 per 100 000 people, of which we are very proud in Cape Town.

“Our overall fire mortality rate is about 2.6 per 100 000 people, with the average ranging from four to seven per 100 000 people elsewhere, and that is a not insignificant achievement, which has been made possible because we
have such a well resourced fire department,” he said.

The event, which took place on International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction, under the auspices of the United Nations international strategy for disaster risk reduction, focused on raising awareness in vulnerable communities.

“We have various vulnerable communities, women, the elderly, the handicapped which we target to ensure that they are more resilient,” said Mr Smith, “and it incorporates a range of deliverables for the particular aspect of disaster that we suffer most frequently: fire deaths in informal settlements and backyard communities.”

Mr Smith said that the City has a comprehensive strategy to address the problem, which includes rehabilitation after fires, reconstructing dwellings in a grid pattern to create fire breaks between them, education which was the focus of Thursday’s initiative, enforcement by keeping fire breaks open after rehabilitation, engineering strategies to prevent fires, including use of non-flammable devices for lighting and heating purposes, and emergency preparedness training for communities so they will know what to do in the event of a fire.

Working with disaster risk management volunteers, Mr Smith demonstrated the use of a solar jar as a non-flammable light source, a hand-held horn for raising the alarm in the event of a fire, and the proper use of a fire extinguisher, to the interested community members, which included a large group of pupils from Silukhanyo Primary School close by.

Speaking about the devastating impact of a fire in an informal settlement, Mr Smith said: “Once a shack is ablaze, there is little that the community can do, and with strong wind like you have today, that fire will rip through 400 to 800 shacks in no time.

“On average, it will take from five to 40 minutes for the fire department to be alerted.

“By that time a great deal of damage has been done. Even if we get here almost instantaneously, a lot will be lost.

“It is better to prevent a fire in the first place.

“We target high-risk communities like this, so they understand how to prevent a fire, and in the unfortunate event of a fire, how to react appropriately.

“We also share with them various tools to help put out fires at an incipient level, when a fire is still small,” he said, adding that 200 each solar jars, air horns, and fire extinguishers would be handed out to community members previously identified through a thorough selection process.

Speaking after the demonstration, ward 86 councillor Carl Punt had this to say: “We must address the root causes of fires in this community, and also create awareness of prevention, and what to do in the event a fire does break out. This initiative is ideal, and it has catered especially well for the children here today, some of whom have asked me if it can be taken to schools.”

According to Mr Smith, the City conducts more than 800 such awareness sessions each year, along with other initiatives such as painting shacks with flame retardant paint.

The number of fire fighting staff has doubled in the last eight to nine years across the City, the City has spent almost R400 million on additional fire engines and equipment, many larger vehicles have been converted into skid units to more easily penetrate into densely packed structures, and a number of units have been converted to use foam.

All of these initiatives are intended to bring down the fire mortality rate in backyard and informal settlements.

“We have a well resourced fire department, and that has helped bring down the fire mortality rate, but we would much rather prevent fires, than have to raise money for prosthetic limbs in the burns unit, and that is the focus of our on-going awareness campaign,” Mr Smith concluded.