Innovation in fire detection could protect millions from fires in slum communities

World Vision has won $250,000 to bring innovative, networked fire detection technology to vulnerable families in informal communities in Asia.

The global toll of slum fires

More than 800 million people, or one person in ten, currently lives in a slum. With the global urban population estimated to expand by 2.5 billion people over the next 25 years, this number is only likely to grow.

Substandard housing and a lack of reliable community services mean that slum dwellers face constant and significant risks to their health, safety, and wellbeing. One such risk is that of fire. With dense and highly flammable housing, dangerous electrical connections, and a reliance upon open flame for cooking, heating and lighting, out of control fires are a regular occurrence in slums. Without appropriate warning and response systems, a fire can tear through a slum, destroying thousands of lives, homes, and livelihoods within minutes.

Every year, slum fires kill thousands of people and displace many more. Without a home and the possessions necessary for survival or income generation these displaced people are entrenched in poverty and are vulnerable to further risks and exploitation.

Top: Slum fires devastate communities and entrench already vulnerable families in poverty. Left: Lumkani is the world's first and only fire detector designed specifically for urban slums. Right: Lumkani links with other devices and mobile phones, sending out a community wide alert in the event of a fire.

Lumkani – small, smart and a serious game changer

Early detection of a slum fire would give residents and fire services a chance to proactively respond, mitigating its destructive impact. However, the smoke detectors that you and I depend on every day are all but useless in slum communities where a smoky environment is the norm.

Enter the Lumkani early warning fire detection system.

Developed in 2014 by a South African based social enterprise, the Lumkani system is the world’s first fire detection system designed specifically for urban slums. The system detects fires in slums by measuring the rapid rise in temperature and sends out a warning to other local devices, which are networked by radio frequency.

When a fire is detected, an alarm will sound from all devices within a 40 metre radius. Warnings are sent via SMS around the community and fire services are automatically notified with GPS coordinates of the fire. All of this allows for a rapid community response that saves lives and properties.

How the Lumkani device works

World Vision bringing Lumkani to the world

8,000 Lumkani devices are now installed across 28 high density urban townships in South Africa and Namibia. World Vision has partnered with Lumkani to install 1,000 of these devices and provide training and resources to community and municipality fire response teams. 15 threatening fires have been detected to date, with the majority limited to a single dwelling because of the early warning system, saving potentially hundreds of lives, homes, and livelihoods.

World Vision was recently selected as one of ten finalists in the Google Impact Challenge, an initiative to support non-profit innovators using technology to tackle the world’s biggest social challenges. The project  proposal is to bring the latest version of this innovative system to highly vulnerable urban communities in Asia, beginning with Dhaka, Bangladesh - home to 3.6 million people living in high density informal areas.

The three year pilot project will not only bring the early warning fire detection system to slums in Dhaka, but will build the capacity of community and municipality fire response teams to prevent and respond to fires. Following a successful pilot, World Vision will seek to expand the program across Bangladesh and in urban slums throughout the Asia Pacific region in countries including India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea.