PyroLife International Symposium: Towards an Integrated Fire Management
Highlights from the second PyroLife Symposium webinar on June 10, 2020 by Hugo Lambrechts.
Does fire discriminate? It is thought that when it comes to fire risk all of society is impacted equally. It is, however, the poor and marginalized that are affected the greatest. Informal settlements make up 33% of city dwellings and 1 in 8 of settlements globally, and it is often in informal settlements where the inequality is most evident. Danielle Antonellis looked at different examples of fire safety inequality and offered some perspectives on how to address this.
Although everyone is evenly at risk of being affected by fire, the consequences and ability to deal with this is where the biggest inequality is exposed.
To address fire safety inequality we need more diverse perspectives.
Fire risk is equal to the combined effect of hazard x exposure x vulnerability. Hazard refers to the fuel, oxygen and potential ignition sources. Exposure relates to the likelihood of how a particular fire will affect a group in the natural or built environment. Vulnerability refers to the lack of capacity to cope with the consequences before, during and after a fire. If any of the factors increase, the fire risk also increases, but the same exposure to a fire event can have very different outcomes for the poor and most vulnerable.
The unequal Exposure is demonstrated by the contrast of a fire caused when oil is forgotten on the stove after making chips getting back from the pub in Ireland and South Africa. In Ireland the consequence of the fire in a single home was a single household affected, but in an informal settlement one household fire could spread to hundreds of households due to the density and materials of the homes – the consequences thereby affecting the entire community.
The consequences of fire were demonstrated by a personal example, when a fire occurred in Danielle’s house. Social and emotional safety nets were in place and within two months her life was back to normal. A fire event in an informal settlement could have very devastating results. Normally the complete house is lost with loss of all belongings and assets, personal documents (with no back-ups), personal savings, rent-to-own furniture and business run from home leaving the household with great debt and loss of savings and opportunities due to using this for rebuilding and recovery after the fire – in most cases no critical medical treatment or emotional safety nets exist.
“Nothing undermines development like a fire disaster”
This inequality is not only limited to the developing world. This is demonstrated by the coffin cubicles and cage homes of Hong Kong where most subdivided flats do not comply with fire safety regulations causing hundreds of fire-related deaths, the Grenfell Tower fire in the United Kingdom – where 72 people died and hundreds were affected and in Bangladesh where 10,000 people were displaced in fires in the Chalantika informal settlement in Dhaka and the ready-made garment industry with little fire safety.
The fire safety inequality in the ready-made garment industry came under the world spotlight in 2012 after the Tazreen Fashions factory fire (resulting in 112 deaths). The fire had little consequences for the business owners, but the workers affected had no income as result of a loss of work, no social security system and no income-loss compensation systems in place. This can be seen in parallel to the current COVID-19 epidemic where social distancing is not practical in these communities, and a humanitarian crisis persists due to lockdown where the poor and vulnerable are again the most exposed.
Most fire safety inequality is rooted in systemic issues. Danielle suggested that to solve the challenge of fire safety equality “we need diverse perspectives”. We need to address what fire safety looks like in our communities through:
- Research fire safety inequality working with the people most affected.
- Inclusive regulations, policies and practices by understanding the local risk factors
- Resilience-based approaches by learning from other disasters e.g. drought and looking at he challenges holistically.
- Through public engagements.
The meeting concluded with the question: “How do you address fire safety inequality in your work?”