Smoke detectors in shacks save lives

Sibusiso Gibson stands in front of his neighbour's rebuilt shack. Elvis Nyamga helped the neighbour put out the fire.

A Wallacedene resident put food on the stove and sat down to have a few drinks. He woke up a short while later to the sound of a smoke alarm. His supper had caught alight after he had nodded off.

“Now he’s telling everyone the story,” said Sibusiso Gibson, a neighbour of the man who’d had the narrow escape.

The man believes the smoke detector saved his life. They were installed in 1 400 shacks in the informal settlement in April as a pilot project.

Mr Gibson said people in the area were happy to have the smoke detectors but they were not without their problems and he recalled at least one incident where the detectors had let a resident down.

His opposite neighbour had fallen asleep on his bed with a lit cigarette. He woke up shortly afterwards to find his clothes and bed burning.

Mr Gibson said the man rushed outside and called for help and another neighbour, Elvis Nyanga, came to his aid. By the time the pair had put out the fire on the man’s body, his whole shack had gone up in smoke.

“That fire happened so fast,” Mr Gibson said. Only once the shack was engulfed in flames did smoke detectors go off, all over the settlement – but the detector in the shack that was burning remained mysteriously silent.

Nevertheless, the man has had another smoke detector installed in his rebuilt shack.

“They like it,” Mr Gibson said, explaining that the nuisances have not put everyone off the devices.

Mr Gibson’s view is in line with the findings of Stellenbosch University, which is one of the custodians of the project.

Several months down the line, the university has found that while residents admit the detectors can be a nuisance, their popularity is growing.

Wallacedene is currently the only informal settlement in the city that has had smoke alarms installed by the provincial Department of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning in collaboration with partners including Santam and the City of Cape Town.

Local Government MEC Anton Bredell, said: “There can be no doubting the evidence is proving the worth of the unique pro-active smoke alarm intervention, researched, developed and implemented by the department.”

According to a report by Patricia Zweig, a lecturer in disaster risk studies at Stellenbosch University, and Rodney Eksteen, the assistant director of fire and rescue services for Local Government, 300 to 400 fire-related deaths are reported annually in the Western Cape.

The report notes that while Wallacedene is “historically prone” to fire, several residents citing the nuisance factor of frequent false alarms had wanted the smoke detectors uninstalled.

Mr Gibson agreed with this. “Sometimes it goes off a lot. Then you hear pee pee pee pee pee pee,” he said in a high pitched tone.

“We don’t like it when the noise is going off when nothing is happening. Sometimes, we hear the alarm and we go and kick the door down but there’s no smoke inside. There’s nothing and now the door is broken. Now people first wait to see smoke before they go in.”

Apart from the nuisance, the report says the false alarms have a more worrying side-effect: residents start ignoring the alarms.

However, it adds that the devices worked properly and alerted neighbours on time during three fires that happened since they were installed.

“On two occasions, their actions saved the lives of sleeping young men, and on another prevented a fire outbreak in an empty home, when someone left for work and unintentionally left the stove on.”

The report suggests that these success stories will help to build trust in the devices.

“This was illustrated recently when, following a fire that saved the life of a young man, three women who were involved in his rescue approached the community leader requesting the re-installation of alarms in their homes, which they had previously removed, seeing no value in them.”

Despite the problems, including insect infestations in the devices, the report notes there have been no serious fires in the area since they were installed and that apart from simply sounding the alarm they have also raised awareness about fire risks.

“In a settlement, historically prone to fire outbreaks, not one serious fire has occurred this winter, statistically high fire months in the Western Cape,” the report says, although it notes that the impact of the recent electrification of the community “cannot be discounted” as most households had swapped flaming stove and candles for electrical sources of energy.

“This suggests the need to extend the project over a longer period to understand how electrification might influence fire risk in negative ways as well,” the report says.