Display Fireworks Require Common Sense and Distance to Keep FFs Safe

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...

Matt Shea is in the fireworks industry and does know a thing or two about safety, and cares enough to want to keep firefighters safe. Shea is the general manager of Atlas PyroVision Productions. He said his company is proud to be one of the class sponsors. Atlas does 600 shows in the USA and 10 international shows annually, and anything the company can do to make firefighters safe is worth it, he said.

"The safer the show, the less likelihood of spectator and firefighter injury," Shea said. "We want to show firefighters what can happen in a worst case scenario and present it in more of a hands-on manner, showing them what it would look like in the field."

When Fireworks Go Wrong

When things do go wrong in the field during a fireworks show, the results are often not pretty.

Allison said fireworks can have the same force and destructive power as any blasting zone material found in construction or in the military.

"If you were to get a call for a guy standing in the middle of a field throwing sticks of dynamite up in the air, how are you going to respond to that?" Allison asked. "Are you going to run in and say, 'Give me a match?'"

Obviously, the answer is no and Allison said firefighters need to exhibit that same precaution and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) as they would for explosives responses and hazmat responses.

"Who wants to be responsible for going to tell someone you had a line of duty death (LODD) in an entertainment venue?" Allison asked. "There's absolutely no reason for it. Everyone forgets about safety because fireworks are an entertainment venue, but it's an entertainment venue with explosives. Everybody forgets about safety because we're all having a good time; it's a holiday; it's the Fourth of July. …I don't want anyone to have to explain why a firefighter is dead because you did something stupid."

The Show Site

From inspections to standby during the show, firefighters ought to conduct themselves in a professional manner, Allison said.

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 electrically-fired matches, or ematches, which 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.

"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."

Rules and Regulations

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 upon the NFPA 1123 rules, but states have their own regulations that may supersede the NFPA rules.

N.H. State Fire Investigator Chris Wyman has been with the New Hampshire State Fire Marshal's office for 10 years and has seen a lot of unsafe practices in his years inspecting and monitoring fireworks displays.

While he discussed rules and regulations for using fireworks in New Hampshire, he offered a lot of practical safety tips and general rules of thumbs that will help keep firefighters safe nationwide.

Wyman said firefighters called upon to inspect and monitor fireworks need to be intimately familiar with the rules governing their jurisdictions.

Wyman stressed the importance of distance between the shoot site and the audience. NFPA, and many states, have tables of distances which should keep audiences out of harm's way in the event of fireworks mishaps, he said.

For each shell being fired, there are prescribed distances the audiences should be away from the firing zone, Wyman said. As a rule of thumb, a shell will travel 100 feet for every inch in diameter, he said.

For example, a 10-inch shell will travel about 1,000 feet in the air and then break in a 400- to 500-foot burst.

"You need to keep size in mind when you start thinking about distances," Wyman said, adding that really expensive shells can be up to 12 inches in diameter.

Consumer Vs. Professional Grade Fireworks

Wyman also offered a way to easily tell the difference between consumer grade fireworks and professional display fireworks. Typically, consumer items have fancy and colorful paper labels meant to attract retail customers with marketing slogans. They'll also have warning labels that are not necessary on professional grade fireworks.