MOTHER, APPLE PIE, AND FIREWORKS?
Like a lot of other kids from the Northeast during the early 1970s, I enjoyed spending summer vacation in Florida. As my family rolled down Interstate 95, I particularly liked watching for the billboards erected for a particular “tourist trap” on the South Carolina border. Every mile along the way, the signs would say “Only 56 more miles to The signs made the time pass more quickly.
Once we arrived in South Carolina, we would stop at this overpriced and overblown traveler’s mecca. Of particular note was its extensive selection of fireworks, which were not available back in New Jersey. The fireworks were wrapped in greatlooking packages with even greatersounding names. Of course, I wanted to buy some.
My father had different ideas, however. He wouldn’t let me have any. (How could he, as an officer in our fire department back in NewJersey, where fireworks were and still are illegal?) I was disappointed.
A few years later, I saw the wisdom of his decision. A high school friend blew off a few fingers when making homemade fireworks from a batch of “legitimate” fireworks.
Since 1909, the National Fire Protection Association has waged a campaign to control fireworks. In 1937, the Fire Marshals Association of North America, in conjunction with the NFPA, drafted a model state fireworks law. Effectively, it banned all “common fireworks” and limited pyrotechnic displays to professionally run events.
Of course, the American Pyrotechnic Association (APA) has not been happy with such legislation. It was particularly incensed when the NFPA published its “Fireworks—Spectacular But Dangerous” pamphlet a few years ago. The APA argues that this NFPA pamphlet is fraught with inaccuracies and statistical manipulations. The APA chastises the NFPA for including “illegal” fireworks in the statistical injury information. ‘Hie APA further states that if “legal” fireworks were banned, there probably would be an increase in injuries due to the use of “bootleg” devices.
Yet, even w ith this debate between the NFPA and the APA, the fact remains that approximately 10,000 people arc injured every year due to fireworks, legal or illegal. And as far as I’m concerned, fireworks are still inherently dangerous.
What makes particular fireworks “legal”? Well, our “friends” in the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC.) developed standards for Class C fireworks several years ago, effectively legalizing them and legitimizing them in the eyes of the public. Although fireworks may be banned by both state and local governments, the CPSC regulates the fireworks that are used in jurisdictions where their use is permitted.
This is the same CPSC that regulates toys and other consumer products. How many times has the CPSC initiated a recall of plush toys whose small parts may become ingested by children, causing them to choke? How about the recalled toys that “shoot” small objects, causing injuries?
I guess that a flying, burning, and exploding skyrocket is not the concern of the CPSC. I’m sure that it feels comfortable with the superior manufacturing quality control of fireworks and the always-followed safety instructions contained on the label.
How about the parents of children shooting fireworks? Do they feel that if the federal government regulates it, it must be safe?
The patchwork of fireworks regulations across the country certainly has not helped the situation. Just look at New Hampshire a few years ago, where Class C fireworks again were allowed to be sold to the public. This new legality of fireworks created problems not only for New Hampshire fire officials but also for adjoining states. Firefighters in neighboring states saw an increase in the number of fireworks-related injuries and fires.
The holes in this patchwork of regulations certainly become very evident in Texas during holiday seasons. Although the state of Texas permits Class C fireworks, individual cities are permitted to ban them. This is the case in San Antonio, where the possession and sale of fireworks are prohibited within the city limits as well as a “ring” of land 5,000 feet from the city limit line.
Of course, the 40-plus fireworks stands on the edge of the ring around the city do a booming business. City residents drive “into the county,” buy their fireworks, and drive back into the city to shoot them off.
With this situation in place, the San Antonio Fire and Police departments are essentially powerless to stop the illegal flow of fireworks into the city. Past enforcement of city regulations has had minimal effect on the problem.
This no-win situation proved deadly for 12-year-old Vanessa Arguello in San Antonio this past New Year’s Day. She was playing in front of her house when a skyrocket flew across her lawn, striking her in the side of the head. The fireworks had been shot by a four-year-old two houses away.
Arguello began crying that she couldn’t hear. She fainted and went into a seizure. Doctors operating on her found excessive internal bleeding and that her brain had been pushed to one side of her head. She lapsed into a coma and died the next day (after her parents decided to remove life-support systems).
After this incident, efforts to change the Texas state law’ to also allow individual counties to enact prohibitions against the sale of fireworks were met with a lukewarm response from state legislators. Even after testimony by several fire service organizations and Arguello’s mother supporting the new legislation, the state committee decided to establish a subcommittee to “study” the problem. Of course, such legislative tactics ensure that the bill will die slowly and out of sight.
What can the fire service do? Get behind the NFPA’s fireworks campaign. Ensure that pyrotechnic displays are conducted by professionals. Eight a few cherry bombs under the Consumer Product Safety CommisI sion to get it back on track protecting consumers, not producers.
Finally, when asked by the media for tips on how to use fireworks safely, follow the San Antonio Fire Marshal’s lead. His response: “There’s no safe w ay to use fireworks. Our tip is, don’t use them.