“As far as fireworks, it’s very dangerous. You shouldn’t play with them.” – Jason Pierre-Paul
An American Tradition
In the United States, the 4th of July holds a special place among our many holidays. The mere mention of the date evokes images of American flags, backyard cookouts, blistering heat, and overwhelming patriotism. Above all, however, Americans love to celebrate with fireworks. Every year, millions of Americans from all walks of life pull out their lawn chairs to watch a blaze of colors fill the night sky. But what’s also important to remember is that fireworks displays are exactly what they appear to be: explosions. Big ones.
The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) reports that emergency rooms in the U.S. treated approximately 12,900 people in 2017 for injuries resulting from the use of fireworks. The NFPA also reports that fireworks result in an average of 18,500 fires and 3 fatalities every year. Sure, fireworks are fun, and they produce a beautiful display, but they are also dangerous. There is no such thing as a “safe” firework.
Since consumer-grade fireworks are legal to purchase and use in most states in the U.S., Americans all over the country celebrate the 4th of July by setting off fireworks with no safety training whatsoever. However, even in the absence of training, there are safety guidelines that you can follow to ensure that your Independence Day celebration doesn’t end in the ER.
It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a Finger
A lot of the risk involved with fireworks can be reduced by using common sense. Sadly, not everyone does, and it can result in tragic consequences.
First off, you should always follow the instructions printed on the packaging. It is there for a reason.
As with handling anything hazardous, there should never be any horseplay. Fireworks are NOT toys and should NEVER be treated as such. I know a guy who had a couple of fingers blown off because his friends decided to play hot potato with firecrackers and tossed one his way. Immediately after he caught it, it exploded, resulting in the loss of a couple of fingers. Before you start to think, “Oh this will never happen to me,” don’t. It can.
Even small fireworks, such as bottle rockets or sparklers, should be handled with caution. Sparklers burn at over 1200°F and should never be given to small children. They can easily burn the skin or ignite clothing.
Another thing that should go without saying is to never look down the tubes from which larger fireworks launch, especially after lighting the fuse. Don’t put any part of your body above the tubes. Don’t even be near the tubes after lighting. Even a small shell firing from a tube will blow clean through your hand if it’s in the way. And if the shell misfires and explodes on the ground while you’re close by, I think you’ll find the consequences rather unpleasant. If you don’t know whether a firework has been lit, treat it as if it has, and be careful!
Americans love to party on the 4th of July, grill hamburgers and hot dogs, and chug ice cold beverages. That’s great. Celebrate away. But keep in mind that alcohol and fireworks do not mix. Anyone who has consumed alcohol prior should NEVER be involved in the operation of fireworks. Just don’t do it. Period.
Choose a Safe Site
It’s important to remember that where you set fireworks off is just as important as how you set them off. Expending the extra effort to choose a suitable launch site is always the right thing to do in order to protect the safety of yourself and anyone who might be watching ─ your spectators.
Discharge sites that are too close to trees, power lines, buildings, or other obstructions run the risk of hitting said obstacles, either with the firework or its flaming fallout, which could start a fire. Choose a location that is open and away from all obstructions. It will also provide a better view for your spectators.
Also, pay attention to weather conditions. In the heat of July, it’s not uncommon to have droughts in some parts of the country, and dry grass is easy to light on fire. Always keep a hose, large buckets of water, or fire extinguisher nearby, in case any small ground fires do occur. Wind can blow still-burning fallout far away from the intended fallout area and can set small fires you won’t see in time to put them out. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and just don’t use fireworks at all if the wind gets too high or the ground too dry.
Avoid uneven ground as much as possible. Launching fireworks on unlevel ground runs the risk of tubes falling on their sides, which can result in flaming balls firing right towards you or your spectators. If necessary, you can create a solid base using a thick piece of plywood, made level by placing a smaller board beneath the lower end. If a second support board is required to make it level, the grade is too steep, and you should launch your fireworks elsewhere, or not at all.
The only people that should be near the firework launch site are the people who are responsible for setting them off, and there should be a clear distinction between them and anyone who is watching. Anyone who isn’t actively helping put on the show should be moved a safe distance away, which professionals consider at least 200 feet. Fewer people around the discharge site means fewer chances for someone to get hurt. Areas where a minimum viewing distance of 200 feet can’t be achieved, such as urban residential areas, shouldn’t be used for fireworks displays.
Beyond Common Sense
Beyond the realm of common sense, there are a few tips that are also helpful to keep you and everyone else safe.
When setting off fireworks, wear clothing made of natural fibers, such as cotton. Natural fibers burn when exposed to flame or intense heat, but synthetic fibers melt. In case of an accident, having your t-shirt catch on fire is preferable to having it melted onto your skin. At least then you can take off the flaming cotton t-shirt before you get burned too badly.
Always wear safety glasses. They provide a good layer of protection for your eyes against sparks and debris. You shouldn’t kid around when it comes to protecting your eyes against the effects of explosives.
Believe it or not, there are right and wrong ways to light fireworks. The safest methods are to use a long-necked camping lighter, a pyro torch, or a punk, which will help keep your hands as far from the fuse as possible. The flame should point across the end of the fuse, perpendicular to the fuse itself. When the flame is parallel to the fuse, it can result in accidentally lighting the firework packaging on fire. Lighting across the tip of the fuse gives it the longest burn time, giving you as much time as possible to get to a safe distance before any shots fire off.
Never attempt to light any fireworks that appear damaged or defective. If a fuse fails to light properly, or if a multi-shot packaged firework stops firing before all of its tubes have fired, you should never attempt to relight it. If the firework is defective, you cannot fix the problem by adding more fire. Setting a fire in the wrong place could result in a large explosion on the ground. Any misfired or “dud” fireworks should be handled with care. They can be unpredictable and fire off without warning, even after you think they’ve burned out. Wait at least 15 minutes before approaching a dud and then soak it in water for at least 20 minutes, then dispose. Metal trash cans are good for this.
A common practice by many where I’m from is to gather up all the leftover packaging from fireworks after the show, stack them in a fire pit, and burn them. After all, they are mostly cardboard, right? No, that’s a bad idea. It is not uncommon for there to be unfired shots still in them. Throwing them in a bonfire can result not only in a shell exploding on the ground, but in flaming remnants of packaging flying at you, which could have other unfired shells in them as well. It can be an amusing spectacle to watch – at least until someone gets hurt.
Handle With Care
No firework is “safe,” but safe handling and practices can reduce the risk to you and others, making them safer. This 4th of July, enjoy the celebrations, but remember that fireworks are explosives and can go terribly wrong if handled improperly. Taking a little extra time to pay attention to how you can improve safety at your fireworks show can have a huge payoff, and help keep you, your family, your friends, and your community safe.