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Strengthening Community Fire Response Mechanisms Study

Recently, the Centre for Urban Research and Innovations (CURI), based in the University of   Nairobi collaborated with the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) in a research project on Community Fire Response Mechanisms in Informal settlements. The study which commenced in August 2015, is an initiative by the Kenya Red Cross that forms a part of its larger Fire Sensor for Safer Urban Communities Project. The research was undertaken in Mukuru Fuata Nyayo which is one of the informal settlements in the Nairobi industrial area.

Nairobi, the Capital city of Kenya hosts up to 4.5 Million people during the day and close to 3 million at night. The population however keeps increasing due to increasing levels of rural –Urban migration as well as natural factors since over 70% of the population is young and within the reproductive age. The increase in population has led to a shortage of cheap housing and contributed to overcrowding and the mushrooming of slums.Due to inadequate housing, joblessness and the ever increasing rents, informal settlements have mushroomed to an extent that is not manageable. Most of them are located along railway lines, road reserves, rivers, industrial areas, on drainage lines etc. thus making them vulnerable to disaster incidents, such as fire.

Response to fires, especially in informal settlements, continues to be a daunting task due to the lack of publicly provided firefighting systems including the lack of water sources to douse fires, extreme proximity and high density of shelters coupled with combustibility of construction material and poor infrastructural development in informal settlement areas, including lack of access roads into the settlements.

As a result in majority of the cases local communities face the wrath of fire disasters alone, individually and collectively. Therefore, in the informal settlements communities bear the largest responsibility for combatting fire disasters, their capacity and marginality notwithstanding (KCRS, 2015).  Many are the occasions when the city and other firefighting equipment arrive too late after the fire has consumed multiple structures or wiped out whole neighborhoods. The Kenya Red Cross is usually among the first external agencies to respond to fire disasters in urban informal settlement disasters in Nairobi and other main towns in Kenya (DREF, 2011). Based on their experience in informal settlement fire mitigation Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) intends to develop sustainable community fire response by improving capacity and strategy in informal settlement community with Mukuru Fuata Nyayo Informal Settlement as a pilot.

The study utilized mixed method, being qualitative, quantitative and participatory. It involved the use of techniques such as household questionnaires, key informant interviews and focus group discussions to get firsthand information on community experiences with fire outbreaks. A participatory methodology was used during the entire assignment and ensured that the key stakeholders were adequately involved throughout the process. Consultative meetings were conducted with the KRCS officers and community stakeholders to triangulate and obtain data and information regarding fire responses and associated dynamics.

Settlement structure

Informal settlements tend to be tightly packed neighborhoods varying in designs and typologies. Newer settlements tend to have a more refined layout as residents and local leaders are more sensitive to the importance of structural order and access routes. This is characterized by structures having a coherent orientation and well-defined paths and routes. Layouts in older and less organized settlements manifest themselves in a much more organic manner. In the organic layout the structures are more tightly packed, there is no set structure orientation. Mukuru Fuata Nyayo settlement has both of these typologies, both organic and inorganic areas. The study revealed that the fire hotspots were located in the more organic parts of the settlement mainly because of the poor access hence the increased vulnerability. 

Building material

Mukuru Fuata Nyayo’s building are largely of temporary nature with more than 80% of the structures were constructed using temporary material such as iron sheets, timber and carton. The settlement is prone to fire disasters, as some of these materials are highly flammable, the ability of iron sheets to conduct electricity also serves as a threat in the settlement. Fire disasters are a function of the type of housing including the building materials and the current user of the structure. Structures where hotels and food preparation is carried out fires are common. Similarly structures, which have carton or paper walls are more prone to fires compared to those, constructed with stone or concrete.   

Causes of fire in Fuata Nyayo

The main causes of fire in the area were found to be: illegal electricity connections, mishandling of cooking appliances and appliances, domestic violence and arson.

Community Fire Response Mechanisms

Residents of Mukuru Fuata Nyayo were active participants in putting out fires within the settlement. More than 60% of those interviewed participated in fire extinguishing to save life and property. This is a reflection of good initiative and cohesive culture among the residents in helping one another during fire incidences, which is crucial in introducing community initiatives such as community fire response mechanism.  Upon the outbreak of a fire, the residents played different roles to contain the situation. Some were mobilized to rescue people, raise alarm, and create firebreaks while other were tasked with maintaining security and order and outing out the fire. Gachago (2013) noted that communities continually adapt to crisis, coming up with creative solutions. They prioritize livelihoods and household assets rather than the quick fix.

The fire response mechanisms seems to be working well for the community but are not in themselves adequate in responding to various causes of fire and all magnitude of fires hence need for a more institutionalized and effective community fire response known and adaptable to their situations and needs.

Building Capacity for Community Fire Response Mechanisms

The study through consultation with the members of Fuata Nyayo community and KRCS proposed an integrated package of interventions to provide essential firefighting infrastructural services, comprising of: firefighting boxes –Street Level (with basic firefighting equipment such as whistles, fire extinguishers, demolition tools), integration of current utilities(current utilities such as communal toilets and water points should be integrated into the system of firefighting), improve electricity supply, improved design for refined Settlement layout.

Community Fire Response Station:

These are fire stations based within the informal settlement but integrate it into the larger system. It would utilize the network within the settlement and link it up to that of the city fire stations tailored to the need of informal settlements. The fire stations should be owned and managed by the community and be incorporated into daily use so as to make them vibrant. The fire stations are to be spread out across the village with priority being to fire prone areas.






Improved design for refined Settlement layout.


By Sharon Boit

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