Fireworks Safety for Firefighters

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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 fire captain and licensed pyrotechnician who has developed a fireworks safety course explicitly for firefighters. To prove his point, Allison fired a three-inch shell in a mortar at the Rochester, NH, 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 and a plume of gray gunpowder smoke.

"That was a catastrophic display failure," said Allison, a 24-year career firefighter and captain with the Merrimack, NH, Fire Rescue Department.

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.

Allison, a licensed pyrotechnician with Atlas PyroVision Productions in Jaffrey, NH, has developed what could be 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. 

"I'm here trying to show you guys what you do wrong and why you shouldn't do it," Allison said in a May workshop to about 50 firefighters from all over New Hampshire. Allison is qualified to teach on the topic, since he is in the fire service and has also been trained and licensed in the use of professional display fireworks. And firefighters listen because he's one of them. He's also taken a five-inch shell in the chest and 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 teamed with the New Hampshire Office of the State Fire Marshal and the New Hampshire Association of Fire Chiefs to sponsor and promote the class.

Matt Shea, the general manager of Atlas PyroVision Productions, said his company is proud to be one of the class sponsors. Atlas does 600 shows in the U.S. 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."

In the all-day class, Allison lectured along with New Hampshire Fire Investigator Chris Wyman, showed videos and, in true fireworks tradition, ended with a finale of live fireworks being set off in improper ways to clearly illustrate why firefighters shouldn't be anywhere near displays when they are being launched.

Allison said firefighters must exhibit that same precaution and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) as they would for explosives and hazardous materials responses.

"Who wants to be responsible for going to tell someone you had a line-of-duty death in an entertainment venue?" Allison asked. "There's absolutely no reason for it. Everyone forgets about safety because fireworks is an entertainment venue, but it's an entertainment venue with explosives. …I don't want anyone to have to explain why a firefighter is dead because you did something stupid."

From inspections to standby during the show, firefighters ought to conduct themselves in a professional manner, Allison said. Too often, he sees firefighters in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops with a portable radio showing up at display sites. More appropriate attire would be forestry gear or, if it's not too hot, full turnout gear, he said.

"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."

be Ed Ballam

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  • Judy Owens on

    Our department is interested in purchasing caps with the name of our department embroderied on the bill of the cap. Do you sell this type item? Seems I ordered some from you a few years back.

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