Fire safety education needed to protect vulnerable populations in refugee camps

Dr Helen Underhill will examine fire risk and vulnerability within settlements in Lebanon

fire services

Dr Helen Underhill will work with specialist charities and UK fire services

A Manchester Metropolitan University academic will be exploring fire safety and response in refugee camps in Lebanon as part of a new project to improve fire risk education.

Dr Helen Underhill has been awarded a British Academy Small Research Grant to work with specialist charities and UK fire services, and examine fire risk and vulnerability within informal urban settlements.

Looking at gender and social dynamics, the project will also provide an insight into the scale and nature of fire risk for already vulnerable populations and groups, exploring how individuals’ experiences of fire can impact their lives.

Dr Underhill, a Lecturer in the University’s Education and Social Research Institute, said: “The overarching aim of the work is to understand why, in the event of fire, particular social groups are more likely to die or experience life-changing injuries. We want to explore the ways in which people living in informal settings, such as camps or urban settlements, learn about and experience fire risk.”

The findings will enable the creation of context-specific approaches to fire education that can help mitigate the risk for people living in informal settings, such as refugee camps and densely populated urban areas, in various low and middle-income countries.

Communities in need

The project follows on from Dr Underhill’s work in 2017 with Operation Florian, a UK charity that provides equipment and training to improve firefighting and rescue capabilities amongst communities in need around the world.

Dr Underhill added: “My research was inspired by a conversation with a group of Syrian women in the Bekaa Valley who had, just days before, experienced the tragedy of a fire spreading through the camp in which they were settled, killing a two-year-old boy and destroying almost all 100 plus tents. Talking with these women highlighted problems with access to knowledge of fire risk, therefore being less able to take steps to protect themselves and their families.”

It is hoped that this will be the first stage in a larger project into the reimagining of fire risk, mitigation, planning and response that will include multiple low and middle-income countries in the Global South.

Dr Underhill will work with Save the Children Lebanon, shelter specialists, fire engineers and practitioners from the UK Fire Service. 

She added: “The project makes a contribution to knowledge of disasters where fire is a significant but under-researched area. It is unique in the connection it builds between education, fire vulnerability and gender. The methodological innovations embedded within the project prioritises the refugees’ voices, experiences and ways of knowing and are critical to the shared creation of a new imagination for fire education in informal settlements.”

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