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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

On-line version ISSN 2078-5135
Print version ISSN 0256-9574

SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.101 n.1 Cape Town Jan. 2011




Burns disasters - a plan for South Africa



A D Rogers; C E Price; L A Wallis; H Rode



'An emergency anticipated and prepared for ceases to be an emergency'.1

The need for a burns disaster plan integrated with national and provincial disaster plans was highlighted during the South African Burns Society Congress in Pretoria in 2009. In recent times, a fire at a large printing works in Paarl and a nightclub in Durban, and bush fires around Cape Town, have questioned both the prevention strategies and our preparedness to cope with the potential number of burn casualties. The likelihood of a burns disaster increases when large numbers of people are gathered in an environment where powerful sources of energy are harnessed in industry or where there has been a significant growth in transportation and technology.2-6

Acts of terrorism have highlighted the need for national disaster plans in all countries. The Australian Burns Disaster Plan (Ausburnplan), for instance, was drawn up in the aftermath of the Bali catastrophe.7 Analysis of major terrorist attacks has revealed that up to 15% of the total live casualties sustained severe burn injuries; but the arrival of even 10 new major burns would overwhelm most burns units in South Africa.3,5,6,8

The International Society for Burns Injuries (ISBI) guidelines for the management of large numbers of burns casualties recommend that 'each country has or should have a disaster planning system that addresses its own particular needs'.9 The essential elements of any disaster plan are descriptions of how medical facilities should provide appropriate treatment, and how to ensure access to such facilities.9 The South African Burns Society (SABS) should assist in evaluating these facilities, help to maintain standards, and formulate and implement provincial and national burns disaster plans.


Ten principles of burns disaster planning

1. Disaster plans have not made adequate provision for burn casualties, a group that has required greater access to resources than other categories of trauma, and requires input from several role-players.3-6 Police, fire and ambulance services are critical to the successful implementation of disaster plans, and should be represented in the planning committees.6

2. Crucial to the prevention of burns disasters in South Africa is the critical analysis of domestic, public and industrial settings. The successful implementation of basic safety standards has resulted in a significant reduction in the fatalities per burns disaster over the last century.3

3. If one were to divide the casualties into three groups (those who die within 24 hours, those who require inpatient care, and those who can be managed as outpatients), the smallest cohort have required hospitalisation. The Coconut Grove Disaster demonstrated that the dead interfere with the optimal management of the living.3

4. The first 2 -3 hours require the implementation of emergency care in the field, based on ATLS principles10 and South African Burns Society guidelines.11 During the ensuing 8 hours, the complex relief strategy should be implemented according to the disaster plan. A co-ordinating team should be located at a central facility.3,7

5. Optimal management of major burns casualties occurs in a burns unit.2,3 Triaging patients to the appropriate category is paramount in the success of a plan's implementation.3,4 An experienced burns practitioner should co-ordinate with the senior emergency medicine practitioner on the scene.2,3

6. The early notification of surrounding hospitals is important. A burns disaster will overwhelm even a burns centre within a multi-specialty hospital. Secondary triage may be necessary so that patients may be diverted to where treatment may continue.3-9

7. Each department in the hospital complex involved should have an emergency call-out plan and implement it according to the nature of the disaster, as determined by the senior burn surgeon. Critical medical and support personnel may include doctors from several specialties (surgeons, intensivists, anaesthetists); nurses with critical care, wound care, trauma or burns experience; occupational therapists; physiotherapists; escorts and translators; clerks; radiologists and radiographers; blood bank and laboratory technicians; social workers and psychologists; administrators; security personnel and porters.6

8. An identified member of the team should liaise with the media and with representatives from victims' families. Inappropriate management of these groups hampers patient care.2,3,6

9. Adequate stockpiles of supplies should be available for such a disaster. The laboratory will be under increased pressure, and the blood bank should be able to arrange major blood donation drives at short notice.6,7 Cadaver skin was identified as the major single resource lacking in Singapore after the 2002 Bali attack, despite having more than 9 000 cm2 in their local skin bank at the time of the disaster.12 Legislation and local resistance have severely limited the availability of cadaver skin in South Africa.

10. Members of the South African Burns Society (SABS) should maintain a list of units and individuals accredited with the SABS, collaborate with other agencies, provide courses and training (e.g. course in Emergency Management of Severe Burns13), be represented at disaster management headquarters, maintain contact with burns units and liaise with bed managers during normal functioning.9

Since 'each country should have a disaster planning system that addresses its own particular needs',9 the SABS has identified the need for a major audit of burns care in South Africa in order to formulate, implement and test such a plan.

The maintenance of a central database of burns units and practitioners forms part of this strategy. Broader objectives include the improvement of burns care and resources in South Africa and increasing the number of practitioners to complete the Emergency Management of Severe Burns (EMSB) course.


1. Benzaquin P. Fire in Boston's Coconut Grove. Boston: Braden Press, 1959.         [ Links ]

2. Clive Wood, ed. Accident and Emergency Burns: Lessons from the Bradford Disaster. Royal Society of Medicine Services Round Table Series. Number 3. London: Royal Society of Medicine, 1987:51-103.         [ Links ]

3. Barilo DJ, Wolf S. Planning for burn disasters: Lessons learned from one hundred years of history. J Burn Care Res 2006; 27(5):622-634.         [ Links ]

4. McGregor JC. Major burn disasters: lessons to be learned from previous incidents and a need for a national plan. Surg J R Coll Edin Ire 2004;2(5):249-311.         [ Links ]

5. Greenwood JE, Mackie IP. Factors for consideration in developing a plan to cope with mass burn casualties. ANZ J Surg 2009;79(9):581-583.         [ Links ]

6. Wachtel TL, Dimick AR. Burn Disaster Management. In: Herndon DN, ed. Total Burn Care. Philadelphia: WB Saunders, 1998:19-32.         [ Links ]

7. Hovarth J. Ausburnplan - Australian Mass Casualty Burn Disaster Plan. 2005. (accessed 16 February 2010).         [ Links ]

8. ABA Board of Trustees. Committee on Organization and Delivery of Burn Care. Disaster management and the ABA Plan. J Burn Care Rehabil 2005;26(2):102-106.         [ Links ]

9. Haberal M. Guidelines for Dealing with Disasters involving Large Numbers of Extensive Burns. International Society for Burns Injuries. (accessed 22 February 2010).         [ Links ]

10. American College of Surgeons. Advanced Trauma Life Support (ATLS) for Doctors Course Manual. 8th ed. Chicago: American College of Surgeons, 2008.         [ Links ]

11. Karpelowsky JS, Wallis L, Madaree A, Rode H. South African Burn Society burn stabilisation protocol. S Afr Med J 2007;97(8):574.         [ Links ]

12. Chim H, Yew WS, Song C. Managing burn victims of suicide bombing attacks: outcomes, lessons learnt, and changes made from three attacks in Indonesia. Critical Care 2007;11(1):R15.         [ Links ]

13. Australia and New Zealand Burn Association. Emergency Management of Severe Burns (EMSB) Course Pre-reading. Brisbane, Australia: Australia and New Zealand Burn Association, 1996.         [ Links ]



Alan Rogers and Chris Price are registrars in the Division of Plastic Surgery at Groote Schuur Hospital, Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital and the University of Cape Town.
Lee Wallis heads the Divisions of Emergency Medicine at the universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, and is Head of Emergency Medicine in the Western Cape provincial government.
Heinz Rode heads the Paediatric Burns Unit and is Professor of Paediatric Surgery at Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital, Cape Town.



Corresponding author: A Rogers (

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