Stopping fires in slums: A surprisingly simple solution

October 7, 2017

On a quiet Wednesday afternoon in early August, Dhaka’s Tejgaon fire station got a call from Beltola, a crowded part of Korail slum. An electric wire was sparking and nearby houses were starting to catch on fire.

Based on previous experiences, the firefighters could guess what awaited them: Panic, chaos, people struggling to rescue their furniture, cloths and other belongings. In Korail’s most recent fire, over 4,000 houses burned down before they were able to put it out.

One consequence of rapid urbanisation and growth of slums is the growing risk of fires. In the past year alone, 17 fires have torn through Dhaka’s slums, destroying the homes and assets of thousands.

But this time was different.

When the firefighters arrived, they were surprised to see that the fire was still in its early stage. In addition, someone had already cut the electric line and taken basic measures to prevent the flames from spreading.

Over the past year, BRAC, with support from IDEO.org, approached the issues of fire prevention and response in slums, using human-centered design approach.

In its early observations and conversations with residents, we strove to understand, from their perspectives: what creates risky environments? Why didn’t people mitigate the risks? How did people respond to fires?

“We live in the slum. We can’t stop it, if it is obvious in our luck. There is nothing much to do by ourselves”. Abdul Motahar Hawladar, Korail resident

It didn’t take long to see why there were so many fires: most households used communal stoves, squeezed into tiny areas between houses made of highly flammable bamboo and wood. These were often left burning unattended, as women were reluctant to put them out and “waste money” on matches to re-light them. In addition, there were tangled electric and gas connections everywhere.

We also heard about what happened when fires broke out. It wasn’t that no one noticed; in fact, it was the opposite! Everyone flocked to the fire, yelling, crying, and panicking. Many called for someone to call the fire brigade, but most people thought someone else would do it. Not many people knew the number. The delay in calling meant that the fire spread significantly before firefighters arrived.

Our fieldwork revealed a few key insights:

1. High risk areas were not perceived as risky; local people unconcerned

2. No one effectively took charge when fires broke out. During the day, a large number of residents were at work, especially men.

3. Though women were often at the scene first, they relied on others (usually males) for support and often called them first.

From insights to action

We used these to design several prototypes. Most failed. For example, we identified high-risk broken electric and gas connection and tried to support residents to fix them. However, disputes between landlords and tenants about who would pay for this proved insurmountable.

One of the simplest prototypes was putting a highly visible sticker that said “BEWARE OF FIRE” with the local fire brigade’s direct number; hoping to help enable the first people on the scene to call promptly.

We also gave a small number of women a basic training on what to do during a fire, to see if they would share these techniques and create common knowledge.

Fast response from fire brigade reinforced calling quickly for help

Indeed, when the chief fire warden asked the local residents how they’d managed to place the call for help so quickly, they pointed at the sign.

In particular, women were thrilled to have these signs posted in their cooking areas. One resident, Rahima said, “I am so excited that firemen came because of my call! We women did it without anybody’s help.” Those who were trained also reported instructing others on how to cut wires and reduce the spread of flames.

In August, there were three instances of early calls placed to the fire brigade, often by bystanders with no connection to BRAC. These are early signals that this behaviour is becoming the norm in Korail, more and more. As people see that calling the fire brigade early means that the fire is controlled, it creates a virtuous cycle of behaviour.

A small victory, with much left to do

There’s still a lot of work to make slums more fireproof. As we learned the hard way from our attempts to repair high-risk areas, this will take some time. But our experience serves as a reminder that sometimes simple, frugal solutions can have powerful effects on individual behaviour, which in this case means that whole communities are protected.

Shazzad Khan is leading the Human-Centered Design team in Social Innovation Lab, BRAC