Some firefighters seem to lose all common sense when it comes to fireworks. T-shirts, shorts and flip-flop footwear become acceptable apparel, and parking apparatus within the fallout area is suddenly OK.
They seem to forget that professional grade, display fireworks can detonate with the same force as dynamite and hand grenades.
"You need to have a little common sense and present in a professional manner," said Shawn Allison, a career firefighter and licensed pyrotechnician who has developed a fireworks safety course explicitly for firefighters.
"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."
Moreover, firefighters need to remember that fireworks are merely entertainment, nothing more, he said.
A Unique Training Course
Allison is a 24-year career firefighter and captain with the Merrimack (N.H.) Fire Rescue Department and also works for Atlas PyroVision Productions, headquartered in Jaffrey, N.H. He has developed what is possibly the only course of its kind in the nation to teach fireworks safety to public safety responders. It's a course taught by a firefighter for firefighters.
For more than a decade, Allison has been shooting professional fireworks and has attended many shooters' courses hosted by professional trade organizations. All touch on fireworks safety, but they are primarily targeted toward the people who set up displays and set them off, not the firefighters who must inspect them and standby while they're being shot off.
He decided to fix that and developed a curriculum for responder safety and has been teaching it primarily in New Hampshire from where he hails, and in the Northeast.
Allison is uniquely qualified to teach the topic, as someone in the fire service as well as licensed in the use of professional display fireworks.
He's also taken a five-inch shell in the chest and has had close calls in the 11 years he's been working with fireworks.
"I know what I'm talking about and that's why you're here," said Allison, who hooked up with the New Hampshire Office of the State Fire Marshal and the New Hampshire Association of Fire Chiefs to sponsor and promote the class.
In the all-day class, held at four locations in New Hampshire this spring, Allison lectured along with New Hampshire Fire Investigator Chris Wyman, showed videos, and in true fireworks tradition, ended with a finale of live fireworks. They were set off in improper ways to clearly illustrate why firefighters shouldn't be anywhere near displays when they're being launched.
"Time, distance and shielding are firefighters' best friends when it comes to fireworks," Allison said.
To prove his point, he fired a three-inch shell in a mortar at the Rochester, N.H., fairgrounds. A thunderous boom rang out and shards of high-density plastic pipe and wood flew across the track infield, chased by a searing fireball.
"That was a catastrophic display failure," said Allison.
The three-inch salute, which is nothing more than black powder launched in the sky for a loud report with no color, detonated in a mortar rack virtually vaporizing the wood framing and the plastic pipe mortar.
"If that doesn't convince you that you need to stay back, I don't know what will," Allison said to the group of about 50 firefighters who were hosted by the Rochester (N.H.) Fire Department. The small army of firefighters, in full turnout gear, were abuzz with laughter and expressions of amazement over the power that a simple three-inch shell can have.
"I'm here trying to show you guys what you do wrong and why you shouldn't do it," Allison said.
"The nice thing about me being in the fire service is I can talk to you the way I do. Firefighters don't always listen to people in the industry because the industry doesn't know about the fire service and firefighters think that industry people don't know anything."