Cape Town. 141215. Francous Petousis, Emily Vining and Max Basler display a fire detection unit with a twist that they invented. The effectiveness of this unit is in its use in multiple, closely situated homes. Once a unit is tripped, it alerts other units in a 20m radius, they then in turn alert others in a 20m radius. The alerts stop once a 60m radius is reached. The unit costs only R90. Reporter Francesca. Pic COURTNEY AFRICA

Francesca Villette

RESIDENTS of UT Gardens in Khayelitsha were saved by Lumkani fire detectors from a blaze that would usually have had devastating consequences for the entire informal settlement.

Once a fire in a shack is detected, Lumkani sets off a loud alarm in all the shacks within 60m, giving residents time to save their homes and possessions.

Most blazes in informal settlements are runaway fires because shacks are so close to each other, leaving hundreds of dwellings burnt to the ground and thousands of residents left with only the clothes on their backs. There is usually no time to save anything but lives.

In a familiar pattern, strong winds last week blew embers from a fire into a shack with sleeping occupants.

“But the alarm woke them and many community members at the same time so very early on, they were alerted to the danger.

“They then initiated the bucket (water-chain) system which put out the blaze before it could spread.

“It is impossible to determine exactly what the consequence could have been had the alarm not sent out the message, but lives were saved and the effect was minimal,” says Emily Vining, 26, one of six directors of Lumkani, a social enterprise bearing the same name as the award-winning fire detector they developed.

It is the brainchild of UCT graduate Francious Petousis, 25. He said the low-cost detector was an early warning system that allowed people to save themselves, their families and property.

Lumkani measures the temperature in the shack, and examines the temperature profile by means of a microprocessor to determine if an unusual event is taking place. The device then sounds an alarm loud enough to wake a sleeping person.

The detector was installed in 400 shacks in Khayelithsa last month. By last Friday, it had been installed in shacks in Philippi.

“The challenges of creating a system that would work in an informal settlement was complex and we had to go back to the community we were working with to test ideas and designs.

“The devices in homes within the radius of the fire will also be triggered, creating a community-wide call to action,” Petousis said.

The idea to create the detector was borne out of Petousis’ thesis while studying mechatronics engineering at UCT.

He had studied ways of creating low-cost solutions to fires in informal settlements.

The project took about two years to complete, with several versions created to ensure the device was loud, reliable and long lasting, he said.

It is powered by a battery which can last for up to two years.

UT Gardens resident Lisakhanya Biko, twice a shack-fire victim, told the Cape Times she believed the device was going to be helpful in preventing more homes from being damaged.

“This device will play a big role, especially during the summer time. People are very irresponsible during the season. Someone would use a stove and leave it while it’s on, and when a fire starts, it affects us all,” she said.

Lumkani had partnered with NGO The Informal Settlement Network, which was co-financing the project. Residents paid R20 for the detector, which retailed for R90.

Lumkani had won the Western Cape Premier’s Entrepreneurship Recognition Awards in the category of best innovative student idea, and it won best start-up idea at the Global Innovation through Science Technology competition in Morocco last month.

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