Appears in March 2021 issue
By Michelle Ashburner
Winter is coming. With that comes an increase in shack fires and it has been argued that on average in South Africa (in the last five years) there are ten shack fires a day, and someone dying in a shack fire every other day.
Shack fires are often termed accidents which often fuels heated debates between shack dweller organisations and key city-builders. The shack dweller organisations argue that the city uses human frailty (error) or sheer accident to add weight to policy choices while little is being done to realise change to the current living conditions of shack-dwellers
While the politicians and organisations argue, the urban poor bear the brunt of economically crippling damage and death by fire for anyone who gets in its way – men, women, children, and the elderly. We often see the pictures of fire devastation – think back on the Knysna fires, the shack fires in Cape Town in 2015, remember the visuals you saw.
Cape Town, 2015 – this is where the story of our innovator, Toli Altounis, starts. He was at home, watching as the City of Cape Town struggled to get the fires under control, he witnessed the damage, the loss of property, and more importantly, the loss of life and decided he had to do something to help. He started researching, easily sliding between historical and modern data when he found an affordable solution to the shack fire problem and small fire first response on the whole.
In 2017, the fires that raged for two weeks in Cape Town cost the city over 10m, while a large insurance company made the claim on their website that fires cost our businesses millions per annum in damages, and most are under-insured.
Back to Altounis, who worked his prototype, patented, and set his production plant up to help the disadvantaged by providing a cost-effective mini-fire extinguisher that can easily put out Class A and B fires as a first response action… All of this in a plastic pouch and interestingly named Put It Out Mini Fire Extinguisher.
The Great Guide went to visit the operation in Strydom Park, Johannesburg where the Put It Out team runs an impressive, manual operation. Walking in, we were met by a smiling man who quickly introduced himself and then took us on a quick tour of the factory before we went to his office to talk. The man is impressive, he truly is altruistic in his dealings and intentions but also makes no apology for the fact that it’s still a business. “I want to do good, I mean I could have made the suggested retail price just lower than what you would pay for a steel mini extinguisher, but how would that help? How would the people living in the shacks be able to afford them – and they were the reason I made this product,” says Altounis.
We pick up the product and he offers to give us a demonstration and before long we are outside where a fire is developing very nicely (with huge flames) inside a braai. “Ideally, this is not the point at which you should be using Put It Out. This is a first response product and the sooner you catch the fire the better it is. Realistically the user cannot expect to put out a whole shack that is on fire, that is now for the fire truck,” he explains.
Altounis shows us the instructions on the back, they are simple and have pictures alongside them. “Here,” he says, “try it.” Katy chooses not to, but game for anything I pick up the packet and follow the instructions. Break (the seal). Pop (the capsule). Shake (the mixture). Point (the nozzle). In less than a minute the fire was out, the only thing lingering was the heavy smell of vinegar.Toli is smiling broadly, I am delighted and excited.
I take a box on the spot. Later that day I’m giving a demonstration to my friends, Buks takes four, one for the garage, kitchen, his wife’s car and his own. “Good thing this,” he says as he pays me the two hundred rands to replace my stock. Harold wants a whole box. In the final analysis, as I drive back to the office I am wondering why the taxpayer is paying 10m for fire services, when a lot of those fires good be stopped at the first response level with the Put It Out Mini Fire Extinguisher that costs R50 (SRP). My mind wanders further, and I think about the employment rate and how this excellent product could save lives and put food on the table. I pick up the phone to Altounis, I need another box.