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Oklahoma State University

Assistant Dean Ed Kirtley Leads Summer Trip to South Africa


(STILLWATER, Okla., July 29, 2017) – From July 1st through July 8th, the Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology Program (FPST) and the Fire and Emergency Management Administration Program (FEMP) went to South Africa to gain a better understanding of the fire risk in informal settlements. This was the first shared project between the two leading fire protection programs at Oklahoma State University, laying the groundwork for future collaborative work. The trip provided students from the two disciplines an opportunity to work jointly to address fire risk in informal settlements.  Not unlike natural and technological disasters, community fire risk is the product of many elements, including human behavior, the built environment, economic factors, and sociocultural forces that shape a community. From a disciplinary perspective, FPST students are typically only exposed to issues involving the built or engineered environment, and FEMP students largely focus on the sociocultural forces, spending limited time on the built environment. To effectively mitigate fire risk, however, fire protection engineers must consider the community from a holistic perspective, understanding how all of the elements intersect and collectively create the fire risk. The experience of working in the informal settlements – meeting and visiting with the residents and aid workers – puts all of the elements into perspective, bringing to light how these factors that contribute to fire and disaster risk are created and perpetuated. Through this experience, FPST students were exposed to the role of sociocultural and economic factors that contribute to community risk and FEMP students gained a better understanding of the interactions between the built and human environment.  The university collaborated with Stellenbosch University and the Western Cape Government Disaster Management to focus on ways to improve fire safety in a number of informal settlements in the Stellenbosch and Cape Town areas.

Quotes from attendees:

Ed Kirtley: This trip provided our students with a unique opportunity to understand the fire problem in informal settlements, not only in South Africa but around the world.  As a result of their experience they understand the impact of socio/economic factors on fire risk in a community.

Jacob Branstetter: For me, the trip to S.A. represented an excellent opportunity to look at a snapshot of the fire service from another perspective. It showed me that some of the work being done by the fire service here in the states, that we take for granted, is not guaranteed and that we need to actively pursue progress, or we will begin to lose the progress that has been made so far.

Khalid Alkhaldi:  As an OSU student, it is my honor to represent Fire Protection and Safety Engineering in South Africa. From real life example, this experience has changed my point of view in many aspects. I have learned the challenges in informal settlements fire incidents. Also, I noticed how the trust could be a crucial role between the fire departments and people who live in the informal settlements. Therefore, FPST’s aim is to reduce the risk of damaging effects of unavoidable hazards to acceptable levels and to save people lives.

Alex Greer:  This unique experience provides students with a hands-on opportunity to see the impact of fire prevention in a high fire risk, multi-hazard environment. Through this experience, FPST students were exposed to the role of sociocultural and economic factors that contribute to community risk and FEMP students gained a better understanding of the interactions between the built and human environment. It also gave the students a chance to practice their research skills, interviewing residents about fire safety and their experience with smoke alarms. This study abroad provided a unique experience that prepares the students to work in other cultures and understand fire risks that are drastically different from those commonly found in the United States. This is an incredibly critical experience for these students, given that both FPST and FEMP graduates often work in international settings, including the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.

Rodney Eksteen-Western Cape Department:  Over the past 10–20 years, many industrialized countries such as the US have reduced their fire related death rates. These reductions can be attributed to concerted and sustained fire prevention efforts, often based on scientific research and evidence involving academic institutions. The partnership with OSU Fire Protection Safety and Engineering Technology Department arises from the recognition that OSU is a major contributor to the development of skills and knowledge in fire mitigation. Bringing together government departments and universities such as OSU, strengthens our implementation of evidence-based fire safety and injury prevention interventions through an evidence-led and coordinated endeavor to changing the social, behavioral and environmental factors that cause fire injuries. The use and availability of smoke alarms has not yet been widely promoted in South Africa, where many people still consider smoke alarms to be a commercial device found only in factories, hospitals and other public buildings. Although scientifically proven through simulation tests that smoke alarms were technically proficient in detecting smoke in an informal dwelling before the onset of a fire, the work conducted in the informal settlements with the OSU officials provided valuable information on the behavioral and environmental challenges of using smoke alarms in informal settlements. In addition, identifying and understanding the risk factors commonly associated with fire hazards, (such as intoxication, smoking in bed, the use of flame stoves for cooking and wood-burning stoves), was essential to inform possible refinements to the intervention.  The collaboration of between the OSU, Fire and Rescue Services, informal settlement residents in reducing fire risk has been critical to the successful design and implementation of this project.