Fireworks season: A refresher guide for fire departments
Fireworks types, regulations and inspections, plus a simple tip for discouraging backyard displays
As the former state fire marshal for Ohio, I was tasked with the promulgation of fireworks rules related to multiple areas:
- Fireworks sales to the public;
- Certification and continuing education requirements for those licensed as pyrotechnicians; and
- Investigation of fires, accidents, injuries or deaths during public or private fireworks displays.
Our agency also oversaw and inspected the stores that were authorized to sell or import fireworks within the state. Although these stores could sell fireworks throughout the year, “fireworks season” for us started in mid-May and ran through early September – the period when the general public was most likely to purchase and discharge fireworks.
Types of fireworks
There are several levels of fireworks available in most states.
- Novelty fireworks: These fireworks are readily available, even in many retail stores. These fireworks include sparklers, caps, and torpedo snaps (devices with little or no black powder that emit sparks or smoke when lit or make a popping sound when thrown to the ground).
- Consumer fireworks: Referred to as 1.4g fireworks, they contain a limited amount of black powder in an array of devices, such as pinwheels, fountains, single-shot mortar aerial displays, and firecrackers either in a single or multiple string report.
- Commercial fireworks: These 1.3g fireworks are designed for use by a certified and licensed pyrotechnician who has gone through a background check, with training and ongoing continuing education to put on large displays, usually for a community fireworks celebration or at a sporting event.
- Proximity fireworks: These 1.3s fireworks are also designed for use by a pyrotechnician, but in close proximity to an audience. Many times, these are used on stage for effect, but emit a “cold” shower of sparks at a pre-determined distance from any combustibles.
Regulation and responsible agencies
The regulation and testing of fireworks imported from overseas falls to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in conjunction with the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). Each year, the CBP searches thousands of incoming shipments, sometimes resulting in the seizure of illegal fireworks. Those that are discovered and deemed legal are sampled by the CPSC for various safety features, including fuse time, which is measured from the point when the firework is lit to when it explodes. The fuse time, which depends on the size of the firework, should allow for an appropriate time for the person lighting the firework move a safe distance away from the firework.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations describe the appropriate placards needed for the transportation of any explosive or hazardous material, including the various types of fireworks from the basic novelty to the professional 1.3g.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), in conjunction with state authorities, is responsible for the oversight and compliance of explosives, including fireworks manufactured within the United States. The ATF must also specify the type of magazine and security needed to store fireworks or explosives of any kinds while in transit or in a temporary or permanent location.
State and local regulations
Each individual state can set standards regarding the sales or discharge of all four types of fireworks. Some states are more stringent, others more lenient. Some may prohibit the sale or discharge of consumer fireworks altogether. All states have the authority to limit where and when fireworks can be discharged and, in most cases, also gives local jurisdictions discretion to further restrict their discharge. In Ohio, for example, the holidays specified when fireworks are allowed for discharge on personal property include:
- New Year’s Eve and Day
- Chinese New Year
- Cinco de Mayo
- Memorial Day weekend
- July 3, 4 and 5 (and the Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays preceding and following)
- Labor Day weekend
As I write this, the temperature in and around our jurisdiction has been north of 95 degrees for several days, with the same outlook for at least another week or more leading up to the July 4 holiday. If this weather trend continues, our local jurisdiction may be extremely dry.
The new law in Ohio grants any city, village or township the authority to opt out of the new state law that provides for the legal discharge of 1.4g consumer fireworks on private land. One reason for this exception is the extremely dry weather that increases the potential for wildland or field fires. In addition, while the state does not limit the time of day when fireworks can be discharged, local jurisdictions can now set specific hours when fireworks can be discharged within their borders.
Many states also require a final combined inspection of any 1.3g or 1.3s fireworks display open to the general public. This is conducted via a standard checklist by both the certified pyrotechnician and a certified fire inspector. Both parties are required to sign the checklist prior to lighting any of the display, including those early shots designed to adjust the debris/fallout field for windage.
If the display is to be fired electronically, the circuit boards are also tested to see that each circuit is in the “safe mode,” so they can be armed individually, one circuit at a time.
The inspection must also include verification that the distances between the launch site and the general public are in accordance with the requirements for the largest firework to be fired. It also requires a check on the stability of the mortar stands in use to avoid a tip-over, which might hurl an aerial display directly toward the viewing area.
Most checklists include the requirement for some fire extinguishing capability on site. Depending on the size of the display, this can vary from one or more pressurized water extinguishers to having a fire department engine staged nearby.
Firework displays gone wrong
Over the years, as both the state fire marshal and as a fire chief, I’ve seen or been part of investigations where fires or serious injuries occurred with seemingly insignificant events, such as children setting off bottle rockets in a subdivision. Things can easily go wrong with fireworks.
Take for example when one bottle rocket went astray and pierced the window screen in a neighbor’s open second-floor window. The neighbors were not at home, and as the fire grew in intensity, one of the boys ran to his house to tell his parents. Upon arrival of the fire department, the fire was well involved and had destroyed most of the second floor and part of the roof. The investigation was relatively easy as parts of bottle rockets were still strewn across the nearby street. When interviewed, the boys readily admitted to their miscalculation of the distance a bottle rocket could travel.
Accidents are not limited to just amateur fireworks displays. The misfire of a multi-stage aerial mortar at a community event caught a certified pyrotechnician off guard. When he went to investigate, he made the mistake of standing over the mortar, only to have it go off and strike him in the face permanently, blinding him in one eye.
And in 2021, in a well-publicized incident nationally, Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Matiss Kivlenieks suffered a fatal strike by an aerial device that tipped over at a July 4 party. Fireworks, even those that are legal to discharge, come with an inherent danger.
Promote the safe community event
I once had a citizen try to explain to me why any prohibition or restriction of fireworks was un-American. He tried to persuade me that fireworks of all kinds and sizes, their possession and discharge, are protected rights under the Second Amendment. This simply proves that however mindful we are to publicize the do’s and don’ts of fireworks safety, someone will always openly defy restrictions.
What we can do, in addition to our community risk reduction (CRR) safety messages, is publicize any local community fireworks displays as a place where citizens can safely gather, knowing there will be proper distances between the shooter’s area and the public; where the fire and EMS department will be standing by to handle any emergency that may arise; and that afterwards there will be “No Muss, No Fuss, No Mess and No Expense” – a welcome change from any backyard display. In today’s world where most everyone is trying to save a dollar where we can, this may be the best approach to catch the public’s attention.
11 fireworks safety videos, from the serious to the humorous
As fireworks season begins, cities and FDs are sharing safety and fire prevention tips to educate citizens and avoid disasters