Dealing with a house fire is a nightmare scenario no matter where you live — but in the slums of South Africa, crowded conditions and open fires used for cooking can be a recipe for disaster. On New Year’s Day, 2013, three fires ripped through Cape Town’s largest slum, Khayelitsha, displacing over 5,000 people. In the aftermath, a group of South African students came together to design an alert system that could stop future slum fires from raging out of control.
The Lumkani Fire Detector isn’t your traditional smoke detector. For one thing, in areas where most cooking is done over open flames, installing them simply wouldn’t make sense. Instead, the Lumkani measures the rate of heat increases inside a building to determine if a dangerous fire has begun to spread, reducing the rate of false positives caused by measuring smoke or temperature alone.
Another feature making the Lumkani unique is the cellular and radio network built into the alarm. Because these slums aren’t planned communities, houses are built by hand out of whatever materials are available, and often, those materials are highly flammable. Fires can easily spread from house to house, devastating entire communities before an emergency response can be mobilized. The Lumkani alerts neighbors within a 60-meter radius to the location of the fire both through an audio alarm and SMS messages, so the community can respond quickly.
This is important, because informal settlements are rarely mapped out, making it difficult for emergency services to identify the affected houses. That’s if workers can make it to the source at all, because there may not even be roads leading to the area. One side benefit to the Lumkani is that it can be used to identify residences in these communities, allowing the creation of more accurate maps.
So far, Lumkani devices have been installed in over 3,500 homes in South Africa, and have already protected two communities from dangerous fires.