Why you should care

Finding a simple, cheap solution to a costly and deadly danger sometimes just takes imagination.

Leave it to a child’s science experiment to inspire a lifesaving remedy for a chronic risk facing slum dwellers in the Philippines: fire.

Each year, the Philippines suffers from up to 8,000 house fires, mostly in slums where a high density of wooden and plastic dwellings combine to create a dangerous tinderbox.

To help curb the risk, the city of Las Piñas worked with the design agency DM9 JaymeSyfu to create a cheap, easy-to-use fire extinguisher that fits comfortably in a pocket.

“The population density of Las Piñas is very high, so fire is a serious risk to the 600,000 living there,” says Mark Villar, congressman of Las Piñas. “This can save a lot of lives.”

The fire that ravaged a slum in Manila last April, destroying more than 1,000 homes overnight, was triggered by a single candle.

In the Philippines, small conventional fire extinguishers cost about $45, out of the reach of most poor families. By contrast, the new device sells for only $1.

The extinguisher, about the size of an iPhone, was inspired by a child’s science experiment and earned the design company a Bronze award at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for the communications industry.

It consists of a plastic pouch of vinegar containing a sealed capsule of baking soda. In the event of a fire, the user simply breaks the capsule inside the pouch, allowing it to mix with the vinegar, which produces carbon dioxide. The user then only needs to tear off a perforated corner to release the flame-smothering mix.

The reaction lasts for a few seconds and is enough to put out the sort of small fire that might be generated by a candle or a cooking stove. It won’t stop a roaring fire, but it could prevent small flames from spreading.

Indeed, the fire that ravaged a slum in Manila last April, destroying more than 1,000 homes overnight, was triggered by a single candle.

The creators of the ingenious device say it could be useful in shantytowns everywhere. “In these sorts of areas houses are crowded together, fire trucks and emergency services have a hard time accessing fires,” explains Nelson Diamante, Las Piñas city’s development planner.

So far, 4,000 pouches have been distributed across two of Las Piñas’ major slums, but officials from other Filipino cities have already placed orders.

Gella Valle, from the DM9 JaymeSyfu agency, says this is just the beginning of what they hope will be nationwide initiative. “Last year, 40 percent of fires occurred in Manila’s high-density urban poor areas. With the mass distribution of the Pocket Fire Extinguisher, we aim to lessen this average by at least 15 percent,” she says.

The company was surprised to receive a bulk order from Belgium. Of course, fire’s a universal problem. The U.S. in 2012 experienced 365,000 house fires, claiming 2,380 lives and costing an estimated $5.7 billion in property damage.

It works. It’s cheap. Why not?

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