Fireworks Safety for Firefighters

When it comes to professional fireworks displays, there are some important things firefighters need to know to keep themselves and the public they are sworn to protect safe.


When it comes to professional fireworks displays, there are some important things firefighters need to know to keep themselves and the public they are sworn to protect safe. "Time, distance and shielding are firefighters' best friends when it comes to fireworks," said Shawn Allison, a career...


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"You need to have a little common sense and present in a professional manner," he said. "Conduct yourself at a fireworks site just like you would at a blasting zone. These are explosives. I don't care if they're pretty when they go up in the air."

A loaded professional fireworks show site is perhaps one of the most dangerous places a firefighter can be, and most don't even realize it. Electrically fired shows have electric matches ("ematches") that can be set off with radio transmissions and batteries from cellphones and portable radios. He said firework charges can be set off just like blasting caps. And there are often wires all over the place presenting trip hazards.

"What's your SOG for a bomb threat?" Allison asked. "Stay back and stay off the radio, right. …Yet when we show up at a fireworks site, all bets are off. Please, guys, just use a little common sense."

Along with common sense, firefighters can refer to the rules for fireworks use in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1123, "Code For Fireworks Display," 2010 edition. Many state regulations are based on the NFPA 1123 rules, but states have their own regulations that may supersede the NFPA rules. The rules state how displays are set up, the types of materials that can be used to make launching racks, and spatial needs to keep firefighters and audiences safe.

As a rule of thumb, shells will travel 100 feet for every inch in diameter. For example, a three-inch shell will travel 300 feet in the air, Allison explained. Should an improper installation or display failure occur, and shells are shot parallel to the ground, they will travel the same distances horizontally. So, an eight-inch shell will travel 800 feet, plus the skip factor as it hits things. And, the burst "will reach out and touch you well beyond that," Allison said.

Shells travel at approximately 136 feet per second, he said. "Who here thinks they can run that fast?" Allison asked.

Signals between the lead technician and the fire protection crews must be worked out in advance so the firefighters can tell the technicians to stop the show, if necessary, and for the technician to let the firefighters know when it's safe to enter. He doesn't, however, see the need to rush in to put out a brushfire.

"We have cans," Allison said. "We can take care of that stuff." Or, they can wait until after the show, he added. "If there's only two minutes left to the end of the show, the brushfire isn't going anywhere."

A risk-versus-benefit analysis and scene safety must be part of the equation, as risking firefighters' lives for fireworks should never be part of the discussion.

"We worry about it on everything else, and then we get to fireworks and everything goes out the window," Allison said. "We should never lose firefighters in the name of entertainment."

Thanks to Shawn Allison; the Rochester, NH, Fire Department; New Hampshire Association of Fire Chiefs; New Hampshire Fire Investigator Chris Wyman; and Atlas PyroVision Productions for their assistance with this article.

ED BALLAM, a staff writer for Firehouse.com, is a firefighter with the Haverhill Corner, NH, Fire Department, a nationally certified EMT, and holds certifications in emergency vehicle operations and pump operations.