Every occasion is a good occasion for fireworks—The 4th of July, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, Guy Fawkes Day, Chinese New Year, your birthday, your anniversary, a home run, a goal, graduation, Tuesday… Unfortunately, such an abundance of occasions also resulted in more than 8,000 fireworks-related injuries in 2011. Four of them fatal. Here’s how to properly handle your celebratory explosives without hosting the after party in the ER.
Fireworks are strictly regulated in the US and subject to federal, state, and local safety ordinances. At the federal level, fireworks are split between two primary classes—1.3G “Display Fireworks” that are used in professional shows and 1.4G “Consumer Fireworks” which are available to everybody. At the state and municipal levels, where you live dictates what you can buy and when. New York and New Jersey, for example, have banned consumer fireworks altogether while Texas allows just about everything and Illinois only permits sparklers and other novelty items. You can find current information about the restrictions in your area at the American Pyrotechnics Association.
Why does this matter? Because the first rule of handling fireworks is to avoid sketchy fireworks-and with so much regulation, there is a big business in supplying illegal fireworks. In other words, if you’re buying your light show under a bridge, it could be defective, expired, or just low quality-these unregulated explosives have unpredictable burn rates and could easily kill you.
Only purchase fireworks from reputable, licensed retailers as they, by default, carry products that meet government safety standards. Per the US Consumer Product Safety Commission,
CPSC staff received reports of four fireworks-related deaths during 2011. In the first incident, a 31-year-old male died of substantial head and chest trauma caused by an illegal 1.3G aerial firework device.1 In the second incident, a 47-year-old male perished when a 1.3G illegal 3-inch display firework device exploded in his face. In the third incident, a 41-year-old male was decapitated by an illegal firework device. A 51-year-old male died of severe head and face injuries caused by a homemade firework device in the fourth incident.
Also avoid buying last season’s close-outs, no matter how big the discount. Older fireworks are more likely to ignite improperly (read: in your hand), if they do so at all.
As such, you should try to store your fireworks somewhere cool and dry and preferably not near other fireworks. The elevated temperatures inside, say, a car trunk in July or next to your home furnace, could potentially cause spontaneous ignition. And if one firework goes off in a big box of fireworks, all of them will go off, so be smart and store them in smaller piles around the house.
Exposure to small amounts of moisture, on the other hand, can prevent a firework from fully igniting. If you do find yourself faced with a half-exploded firework, don’t go near it and certainly don’t be “that guy”—the one that tries to relight it and blows his face off in the delayed explosion. Instead, douse it with water to ensure its dead, then retrieve it.
Also, do not carry fireworks in your pockets. They are surprisingly fragile devices that can easily be damaged while tumbling about with your keys and loose change. What’s more, the static electricity you generate just by walking around could cause a spark. And despite what MTV says, having a firework conflagrate against your leg is neither fun nor profitable.
So, where to set up. Well, somewhere open and nonflammable should suffice, perhaps on a green lawn or spacious concrete driveway—basically anywhere that won’t immediately go up like Southern California in August if it’s showered in sparks. The site should be as level as possible and, if your locality allows for small rockets, equipped with a short length of pipe half-sunken into the ground to act as a stable launch platform.
Depending on the type and scope of fireworks being set off, you’ll want to clear at least a 20-foot immediate safety radius for spinners, firecrackers, and the like, more for rockets and roman candles. Try to keep spectators at least, at least, 50 to 100 feet away if you’re setting off aerials to account for fallout, the firework’s smoldering remnants, and also in case shit gets real. And with the very real possibility of taking a bottle rocket to the face, you’ll want to wear eye protection and snug clothing as well. Use a fireplace lighter rather than a standard BIC to keep your digits out of harm’s way as well. A lit piece of incense works too.
And, this really should go without saying, but please do your best not to be completely shitfaced while lighting fireworks. We understand that it’s a celebration, bitches, but setting off low-level incendiary devices can be just as destructive as a car in the hands of a drunk. If you’ve designated a driver for the night, sweeten the deal by letting him set of the fireworks as well.
Make sure there’s a sober adult supervising them and keep all fireworks out of the reach of small kids—even sparklers. These are constructed from a length of wire coated in slow-burning metallic compounds that reach 2000 degrees F. They account for a majority of fireworks injuries for kids under the age of 5.
Despite all your best laid plans, somebody is invariably going to get hurt, hopefully only superficially. Make sure you’ve got a proper first aid kid—clean water, bandages, and ice—on hand, as well as someone sober to drive to the ER if necessary. Minor burns (first and second degree injuries under 3 inches in diameter) should be placed under cool running water for 15 minutes, then loosely wrapped in medical gauze. Apply aloe vera or hydrocortisone cream to the afflicted area and take a couple of aspirin for the pain. Any burns over 3 inches or on the face, eye, groin, buttocks, hands, feet, or joints dictate a trip to the hospital or a call to 911 depending on the severity of the damage.