Fireworks photo by Jon Sullivan (pdphoto.org)
By Ron Kanterman
The Fourth of July season is upon us. Take the time to review the following information for the purpose of becoming familiar with fireworks, public displays, and related operations such as transportation, general precautions, and working with other agencies having jurisdiction. Fireworks are dangerous, but with the proper precautions, supervision, and vigilance on the part of the fire service, injuries and accidents can be avoided and minimized.
Pyrotechnicians are extremely busy this time of the year throughout the country, and they are working at a breakneck pace. They are known around the world as chemists, artists, and business people all rolled in to one. It takes many different chemicals to get the desired visual or audible effect in the sky. As long as they are in search of the “perfect blue” or the “loudest salute,” the fire service will always be challenged in ensuring the safety of the community, as well as the pyrotechnicians themselves while they are on the firing line. In jurisdictions where fireworks are manufactured, this “chemical search” should be a significant concern. Dealing with the “human element” in manufacturing creates an unpredictable variable for which all precautions cannot compensate. Many accidents and explosions at manufacturing facilities have been caused by human error–no different than most structure fires. There is no special or modern technology in the manufacturing of pyrotechnics. Shells are made by hand and can be subject to poor manufacturing practices, particularly when they come from Third World countries. (See History Channel-“Engineering Disasters”-Episode 5-“California Pipeline Explosion” is the lead story. There is a segment on a fireworks factory explosion in Canada in 2013.)
TYPES OF FIREWORKS THAT CAUSE INJURIES
According to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA):
- 15 percent-Illegal under federal law/large devices and homemade
- 85 percent-Legal under federal law-consumer fireworks that are allowed by law in 46 states.
Less than six percent of all injuries occur at legal permitted public displays. This is the good news. This trend shows that people who use consumer fireworks on their own are getting hurt quite often, and those who attend displays controlled by the fire service through a permit system have an extremely low chance of getting injured.
FIRE LOSSES FROM FIREWORKS
The following numbers come from the NFPA:
- Annual average fire losses/property damage is $40-50 million.
- Annual average number of fires is 27,000.
- Noteworthy losses of the recent past:
- Alaska wildfire burns 360 structures and 37,000 acres: $9 million
- Two fires on wood shingle roof-topped California homes $2 million
- Sparklers on a birthday cake sparks fire at Connecticut multiple dwelling: $2 million
- Fire set in an Ohio fireworks store by a mentally ill person: No large property loss, but nine died; sprinklers were shut off
- 100 dead in the Rhode Island Station Night Club fire
AGENCIES INVOLVED AND THEIR ROLES
Fire department: Permits and display safety
Police: Crowd control, routes of travel for fireworks truck, site security
Parks and recreation: Permits, fencing/security, inspection (if at a public park)
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA): Grants permission to use the air space via a letter of permission
U.S. Coast Guard: Permits, water way management
Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: Regulates movement of powders, visits manufacturing plants, assists with accident investigation
NFPA: Offers national consensus standards regarding fireworks, such as
NFPA Standard 1123, Code for Fireworks Display, and NFPA 1124, Code for the Manufacture, Transportation, Storage, and Retail Sales of Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles.
Department of Transportation: Title 49 CFR regulates transportation of hazardous materials; oversees placards and shipping containers
Note to fire department, fire prevention bureaus, and fire marshals: Take time to build a file for each display. Request from the sponsor and/or display company copies of all other permits or letters, e.g. FAA Permit, parks and recreation permit, police permit for staging an event, Coast Guard permits for loading and transporting explosives, etc. When you get the initial call for a permit, ask the sponsor for a “letter of intent to display” and mail or fax them your requirements. They should look something like…
SITE SELECTION–ITEMS TO REMEMBER
- Refer to NFPA 1123.
- Refer to your local fire prevention code.
- Key item: You must have 70 feet of clearance to the audience for every inch of diameter of the largest shell (See NFPA 1123-Table 184.108.40.206).
- Beware of extended finale racks: Your inspection will allow for a certain size shells from the center of the firing site to the audience, but be aware that finale racks can extend for tens of hundreds of feet. Ensure that the shells at the end of the racks are the right size for the distance to the audience. EXAMPLE: Your site allows for eight-inch shells because you have 560 feet of clearance to the audience. The finale racks are extended across the site and the end of the racks (the last shell) are three-inch. Provided you have 210 feet to the perimeter of the firing line, you’re OK. Beware of extended racks!
- An inspection must be performed by the fire official or Authority Having Jurisdiction.
- Double your table of distances from storage of hazardous materials, correctional, and health care facilities.
- Consider escorting the fireworks truck through town to the firing site with an engine company in the event of an accident. Use the police to establish the route and assist with the escort if necessary. (Consider charging a fee for the escort, career or volunteer.)
- Establish unified command with other agencies at the display site one hour prior to the shot. Maintain command one hour after the shot, as well.
- The police must manage crowd control, site security, egress, ingress and access.
- Firefighters must monitor weather for wind and rain; establish fire department unit staging; provide members used for firing line and monitoring of fallout areas; and obtain final clearance from FAA, if necessary.
- EMS duties: Prepare for shot and postshot injuries, such as burns for operators, eye injuries for spectators. Predetermine a triage site, erect a stationery first aid station, and mark accordingly
Command units that are committed to the display must remain committed and be out of service for other calls in town. Arrange for mutual aid companies to cover for you.
Vigilance is key. While the shooters are responsible for the safety of the shot, firefighters are ultimately responsible for public safety. As they say in the fireworks biz, “have a safe and sane Fourth of July.”
RON KANTERMAN is the chief for the Wilton (CT) Fire Department. He is a 40-year fire service veteran with experience in municipal and industrial fire protection, volunteer and career services, emergency management, and emergency response. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration and two masters degrees, one in fire protection management and environmental sciences. He’s a contributing author for Fire Engineering and FireEngineering.com and was a contributing author for the Fire Engineering Handbook for Firefighter I and II and the new edition of the Fire Chiefs Handbook. He co-hosts the FE Blog Talk Radio show “The Back Step Boys.” He is an adjunct professor of fire science and emergency management at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. He is an advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and is the chief of operations for the annual National Memorial Weekend.