By Laura Hirst
An initial investigation of fire and rescue services, community participation and humanitarian assistance
Fire risk and the impacts of fire hazard in resource poor urban settlements in the ‘Global South’ are hugely neglected within academic discourse, policy and practice. The various adverse effects fire risks have on well-being and wider development issues have not been systematically explored despite fires being a common occurrence in cities worldwide. Whilst large scale fires often make the headlines (see here and here for a few examples), and can lead to the displacement of entire communities, serious physical injury and deaths, the everyday risk and impact of smaller scale fires are less reported yet also severely jeopardise health, livelihoods, housing, markets and well-being on a number of levels. The strategies available to low-income groups in terms of response to fire risk and fire hazard have also been under-explored. This reflects a general lack of attention given to inclusive urban governance, disaster risk reduction and public service provision that takes into account the participation of resource poor urban communities.
Operation Florian is one international humanitarian organisation working on these issues, through the provision of equipment and training to improve firefighting and rescue capabilities in communities abroad. Whilst operating from an ostensibly technical perspective, Operation Florian has increasingly come to recognise the importance and potential for incorporating a bottom-up perspective in its work with communities and partners. This desire to develop a more grounded approach led to a successful proposal for a North West Doctoral Training Centre ESRC CASE PhD studentship project, led by Tanja Müller (GDI), Alfredo Stein (PEM) and Steve Jordan (Operation Florian), exploring fire risks, well-being, bottom-up politics and pathways towards community involvement in fire and rescue services in resource poor urban settlements.
I began work on the project in September last year, and I have since been getting to grips with the functioning of fire and rescue services and the work of Operation Florian. Whilst Zimbabwe is the case study for my empirical research, in November 2015 I joined an Operation Florian team on a project visit to Macedonia, where the organisation has been working for the last eight years, to learn more about the NGO’s approach, methodology and achievements, as well as about specific issues in terms of fire risk and response faced in the country.
A week living in a volunteer fire station in Sveti Nikole, and driving across the country visiting a range of fire services as well as observing meetings with different ministries to discuss future work, provided a rich overview of the work being done by Operation Florian. I was able to see first-hand the achievements and challenges encountered at different levels by fire services, and by Operation Florian as an external humanitarian actor, and a glimpse of potential entry points for ongoing work. Operation Florian has delivered an impressive set of technical and capacity building programmes supporting fire and rescue services throughout the country as well as engaging in national level networking and policy work in a context of delegated decentralisation and fractured responsibility for such services.
For me though, perhaps the most interesting entry point for future engagement from a bottom up perspective, are the volunteer fire services (DPDs) that are scattered around Macedonia. These services support professional fire services and have traditionally carried out the bulk of community safety work. The position they occupy between civil society organisation and service provider provides opportunities for local participation and engagement of communities. This has been employed to great effect in the capital Skopje, where Operation Florian has worked with a volunteer fire service to carry out participatory risk assessments, successfully bringing together diverse groups of citizens to work and lobby on certain issues. The DPDs seem to me to be an important entry point for improving and developing community engagement work and fire safety for both professional fire services and Operation Florian but also for supporting wider, ongoing processes of democratic and participatory decentralisation in Macedonia.
My report reflecting on Operation Florian’s work in Macedonia elaborates on the context of Operation Florian’s work there, its outcomes and future engagement. At the same time it is hoped that this learning can support Operation Florian to think about how it seeks to engage with and support community-led processes in its work more widely. I had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with members at the Operation Florian annual general meeting in January, where I presented the findings of my report. The importance of taking into account complex political contexts in the country of operation was considered, and discussion arose around how a very specific, (and to-date) technically based NGO could engage with this. The difficulty of working in a country with fragmented public services was also highlighted, and raised discussion around how Operation Florian could strategically work within this context to support local citizens and their demands. The opportunity to share my work, and receive feedback was invaluable at this stage in the research, grounding my findings and providing new information and ideas. The report has also since been shared with Fire Aid, a network of UK based organisations involved in providing fire and rescue aid and training to over 30 countries.
My exposure to the work in Macedonia has been a great first step in the collaborative process of working with Operation Florian. As the project progresses with a closer focus on the context of Zimbabwe and an investigation into everyday fire risk, community involvement and the role of fire and rescue services, I’m looking forward to working closely with Operation Florian to make sure my research can feed into their organisational learning and development of new methodologies that allow for pathways of community participation in reducing fire risk in resource poor communities.
Operation Florian has a long-standing engagement with fire and rescue services in Zimbabwe, in Bulawayo since 2011, and in Harare since 2013.
Laura Hirst is a first year PhD student at the Global Development Institute, investigating fire risks, well-being and pathways towards community involvement in fire and rescue services in resource poor urban settlements. Her research is funded by a North West Doctoral Training Centre ESRC CASE studentship, in partnership with Operation Florian. Laura has a background in community-led development and participatory urban planning in the Global South. Prior to joining GDI in September 2015, she worked at the UCL Development Planning Unit and UCL Urban Laboratory, and with the Philippine Alliance, a partnership between five organisations working with resource poor urban communities to provide sustainable housing solutions across the Philippines.