Consumer Fireworks: Are They Really "Safe and Sane?"

The consumer fireworks industry wants the American public to believe that their products are safer than ever before. Fireworks manufacturers will tell you that the number of people being injured by consumer fireworks is significantly reduced since 1976.

However, the latest report (PDF) from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) indicates that in 2008, they received reports of seven fireworks-related deaths and an estimated 7,000 injuries. In 2009, they received reports of two fireworks-related deaths and an estimated 9,000 emergency room-treated injuries. This doesn’t seem to be anything to brag about.

Sadly, children suffer the lion’s share of the injuries. Initially, the consumer fireworks industry touted that more children are injured on bicycles than by fireworks. They neglected to report that bicycle accidents are calculated by the total number occurring during a one-year period and then averaged out for the 365 days per year. Fireworks injuries are calculated for a 3-day period for active discharge of consumer fireworks around July 4th.

Maybe we can acknowledge one silver lining from 2009: the number of firework deaths was reduced from seven in 2008 to two in 2009; those two fatalities were the result of consumer use of bootleg, or professional-grade, fireworks.

Another issue with the reporting statistics on consumer fireworks is the question, “How many people were actually injured or burned who never called 911 or visited an emergency room?”

It’s impossible to know, but estimates are that it could represent an additional 25% over the reported number of injuries. Perhaps we should ask our local drug stores whether they see an unusual increase in the quantity of burn cream sold on or around July 4th.

There’s something wrong when an industry sells to amateurs pyrotechnic products that emit chemical-grade materials that when ignited create enough heat to melt glass and maim a person for life. The consumer fireworks industry market their consumer firework products as “safe and sane” or “backyard fireworks,” but we in the fire and emergency service know the truth, and we must publicize it over and over every year.

The majority of consumer fireworks injuries occur in children under the age of 18, who are burned or injured from heated materials from “safe and sane backyard fireworks.” Most injuries occur to the face and extremities, with sparklers topping the graph for 5–9 year olds and small firecrackers topping the graph for 15–19 year olds. Whether they step barefoot on a spent sparkler, which burns at temperatures of about 2,000 degrees—hot enough to melt some metals—or feel the active sparks biting on their forearm, it’s a burn injury.

It would behoove the consumer firework industry to refrain from marketing such catchphrases, since to the fire marshal, paramedic, nurse, police officer or doctor, it’s absurd to call consumer fireworks “safe and sane.”

When consumer firework vendors sell their sparkler products to the public, there’s no follow up between the vendor and customer. In other words, there’s no training on the material and vendors surely never visit those who are burned by their products.

It’s very simple: consumers who buy sparklers, up to and including one-inch reports, and multi-shot finales don’t understand that that no one pyrotechnic material acts like another. Consumers are basically on their own and at risk. Consumers assume the material will act like the last one ignited and so may remain near the material too long, providing another opportunity for the lit material to fall over, sending showers of sparks  indiscriminately their way and possibly burning their skin or igniting their clothing.

As stated earlier, the general public doesn’t understand the safety issues around consumer-grade fireworks. July 4th is always a time of celebration and often involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Mixing dangerous consumer fireworks with alcoholic beverages is a lethal combination that just adds to the problem. As life-safety specialists, we need to add the effects of drinking alcohol to our public-safety messages around July 4th.

As your community members celebrate America’s birthday, encourage them to protect their families by grabbing a blanket or comfortable folding chair and viewing a professional fireworks display. Professional pyrotechnicians must adhere to strict standards, such as those set forth in NFPA 1123. Codes and standards are designed to make sure pyrotechnicians are well trained, credentialed and insured and they know how to properly shoot their professional-grade pyrotechnics.

Additionally, local fire officials are there to ensure that the public-assembly areas are protected from hazards through compliance with the safe fallout distances prescribed within the standard.

But remember, as fire officials, it’s our job to remind the public every year just before July 4th: “Please don’t bring consumer fireworks to a professional display; leave them at home or better yet, leave them sitting on the vendor’s table.”

Christopher Weir, EFO, is the division chief and fire marshal for the Port Orange (Fla.) Department of Fire & Rescue. He is the IAFC/FLSS principal representative on NFPA Technical Committee on Pyrotechnics and a member of the Fire and Life Safety Section.

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