Lorenza Geronimo l Palladium - May 26 2021
Reducing Fire Risks and Pushing Innovation in Humanitarian Aid

Debris from a fire that struck an internally displaced people camp in Maiduguri, in Borno State, north-eastern Nigeria. Photo Credit: Jessica Mamo, IOM

Every year around the world, fire kills up to 265,000 people. This is five times more than the number of people killed by other natural hazard-related disasters.

Settlements of displaced people, whether refugees or internally displaced people, are particularly prone to fires. Such vulnerability is due, among other factors, to the combustible nature of housing materials commonly used in camps, the methods and fuels for cooking, heating, and lighting, and the densely built nature of many sites.

While the impacts of recorded fires are clear, there are no global statistics focused on fires in humanitarian settings. Coordination for data collection and sharing is lacking, and fire is such a crosscutting issue that it is everyone’s (and therefore no one’s) responsibility.

The complete scale of this problem is still unknown, but there are a few recent indications of how widespread fire disasters are in such settings. One month ago, Monguno, a town in Borno State, northeastern Nigeria, witnessed fires in two camps that affected almost ten thousand people. A month before, a fire broke out in the Kutupalong mega-camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee camp, killing over a dozen people and re-displacing tens of thousands. Six months before that, a fire in Moria refugee camp in Greece caused 11,000 people to flee. These are just a handful of the highest profile events, and extreme weather, higher temperatures, and low humidity due to climate change will only make the problem worse.

Fires that destroy shelters, camps and supporting facilities, such as warehouses which store relief supplies, have wider impacts on humanitarian agencies’ ability to assist affected populations. Persons with disabilities, the elderly, children, pregnant women, and others who may require assistance to escape are more likely to succumb to the effects of fire and struggle to cope with the aftermath. Hence, improving fire safety in humanitarian settings is a matter of urgency.

While helpful but disparate advice exists on how to reduce fire risks, only a very limited amount is geared towards humanitarian contexts. Moreover, available resources and approaches are frequently vague, lax, overly context-specific, or too specific to the global North. But the Humanitarian and Stabilisation Operations Team (HSOT), a UK Government-funded aid program delivered by Palladium, is at the cutting edge of a movement to change that.

A Multi-Faceted and Collaborative Approach to Reduce Fire Risk

‘We have adopted a multi-pronged approach which combines pushing research and development into fire risk reduction, contributing towards new guidelines, and advocating for their application at the global level’, says humanitarian advisor Phil Duloy, who is leading on the fire reduction strand on HSOT.

HSOT is working alongside humanitarian organisations to develop expert-informed, scalable tools to reduce deaths, injuries, and losses from fire in humanitarian contexts. From academic institutions, construction experts, fire fighters, fire risk-specific NGOs, fire safety engineers, forensic investigators, to UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs that lead the coordination of global humanitarian responses, this is a collaborative effort that also includes major government donors, namely the United States and the United Kingdom, satellite data analysts, shelter practitioners and site planners.

The group is focusing on a series of activities aimed at fire prevention, harm reduction, information management and advocacy as well as enhancing alert, response, suppression, and recovery. They have also identified the most common causes of fire, those people most at risk, and the prevention approaches deemed most worth pursuing.

One such promising innovation that HSOT contributed to are fire-retardant tarpaulins. Plastic sheeting is one of the most widely distributed non-food relief items used in humanitarian operations. Each year, hundreds of thousands of square meters of sheets are distributed to be used as a temporary building material for repairs or emergency shelter structures. But this type of sheeting only lasts a year to a year and half in harsh environments like Cox’s Bazar, making it not only a crucial humanitarian supply but ripe for innovation.

The team managed and assessed laboratory testing of humanitarian plastic sheeting varieties to understand what approach was more effective to achieve chemical fire retardance and provided recommendations to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). This led to HSOT’s delivery of 10,000 fire-retardant tarpaulins to shelter Cox’s Bazar camp inhabitants after the fire in March. It was the first time ever that these special tarpaulins were deployed in this context. If this practice is taken up by other organisations, it has the potential to be a massive turning point for safety in these settings.

To increase the attention paid to the issue of fires in the humanitarian sector, Duloy has also co-drafted a paper on fire risk reduction, which is scheduled for release later this year in the global humanitarian shelter sector’s biannual publication. Advocacy efforts to date have led to HSOT briefing both the Shelter and Camp Coordination Camp Management Clusters, which lead standard setting and coordination of humanitarian response at the global level and are headed by the International Federation of the Red Cross, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the International Organisation for Migration.

This approach is also influencing other donors. HSOT has been tasked with quality assurance of a project jointly funded by USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance and the FCDO. It will produce a baseline report on the State of Fire Safety in Humanitarian Shelter and Settlements and will develop fire safety guidance, including a decision support tool for use in the field. It is hoped that these outputs will contribute towards improved global humanitarian standards of practice and drive wider systemic change.

While these are steps in the right direction, holistic and integrated fire risk reduction approaches are still incomplete. HSOT will continue to push for fire risk reduction innovation to ensure that we can continuously improve humanitarian assistance and increase the safety of populations affected by crises.

Palladium manages the implementation of the Humanitarian and Stabilisation Operations Team, a program funded with UK Aid from the British people. HSOT provides the UK government with capacity and specialist expertise to support effective responses to sudden-onset disasters, crises, and complex emergencies around the world. To learn more, contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com. To keep abreast of HSOT updates and insights, follow them on LinkedIn.

Lorenza Geronimo is the Communications Lead on the Humanitarian and Stabilisation Operations Team.