Fizz, Crackle, Pop – What Fireworks Are Safe?

Wondering whether to go watch the community display or put on your own show this holiday? We asked Fire and Life Safety Educator for the North Charleston Fire Department, Bianca Bourbeau, what she sees most in fireworks issues, and she shared these insights with us.

What’s the most dangerous consumer firework?

Bianca Bourbeau: I would say each one of them has their own risks. For example, a sparkler, which we think of as fairly innocuous, reaches 1200 degrees at the tip, so you’re handing your three-year-old an object that can leave a third-degree burn.

Every single one of your fireworks is an explosive of some sort. It uses flame. It uses gunpowder, in a lot of examples. It’s a burning object, so from a fire safety point of view we strongly recommend that everybody just go to the public displays. And then you get this great big event and a big bang for your buck. And most of the events are free, so that makes it nice, and in large scale so you don’t have to put on, in your backyard, what you think is a professional show. You can actually go to one, and there are several in the area for Fourth of July.

What fireworks are illegal in South Carolina?

Bianca Bourbeau: M-80s and higher. Anything, you know, cherry bomb and up is probably not legal – it depends on how much explosive material is in the firework. If it’s legal, for sale, or not, which is also one of the reasons for doing the pre-packaged, well-marked and approved fireworks, so that you know you’ve purchased something that meets the requirements within the state.

There are certain fireworks that you can kind of get your hands on that I’m aware of that are not approved – really not the standards of commercial family-style fireworks, what they call consumer fireworks. I’m not sure how they got into the market other than there were people making them in their backyards sort of thing.

But of course, the fire department recommends going out to the really cool events, and mostly because even a sparkler reaches 1200 degrees. In 2011 almost 18,000 fires were caused by fireworks, and sparklers caused 16% of firework injuries that year.

Sparklers. We hand our children a flaming device that can reach 1200 degrees. It totally amazes me. (And we don’t let them anywhere near a birthday candle.) Right. And, you know, think about water boils at 212, and that can cause a third-degree burn.

Fireworks Laws

  • a) MINIMUM AGE to purchase is 16.
  • b) Underage sales ILLEGAL – retailers can be cited and sanctioned.
  • c) Small bottle rockets – ILLEGAL (per §40-56).
  • d) Firecracker type devices (M-80s, quarter sticks) ILLEGAL.
  • e) Use and Sale of all fireworks is subject to LOCAL ORDINANCES, Fire or Police.

Safety Codes – provided by the South Carolina State Fire Marshal’s Office

Consumer fireworks are governed by the following Statutes, Regulations, and Codes:

S. C. Code of Laws, Title 40, Chapter 56, State Board of Pyrotechnic Safety; S. C. Code of Regulations, Chapter 71, Article 8, Sub article 6; S. C. Code of Regulations, Chapter 71, Article 7; International Fire Code, 2012 Edition, Chapter 56; NFPA 1124: Code for the Manufacture, Transportation, Storage, and Retail Sales of  Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles

What would you say is the most common accident with fireworks?

Bianca Bourbeau:  There are several varieties of accidents. Personal injury obviously is a big deal, so are burns, and occasionally, with bottle rockets and that sort of thing, you’re also looking at a projectile kind of injury as well as a burn, so the risk is significantly high with fireworks. And then of course there’s also the explosion kind of injury.

But, you know, there is a sense of responsibility, follow instructions, follow manufacturer’s recommendations, read the directions on the fireworks before you shoot them off because, for example, a bottle rocket in your hand is not a bright idea. And there are people that do it every year. Different people, usually, they learn from their mistakes, but somebody tries that every year.

What generally causes firework accidents?

Bianca Bourbeau:  It’s the nature of the beast a lot of times. There are also other things. In the past the way the National Science Teachers Association used to attack firework safety was, well, you make sure that everybody who is shooting the fireworks is an adult, everybody has a bucket and a fire extinguisher and a hose. But we’re still getting injury after injury after injury with fireworks so the message now is a much clearer and shorter message, which is go to the community event displayswhere people are trained to deal with explosives, where the fire department is on standby, where you actually have time to meet with your neighbors and socialize as well, so it really has an across-the-board benefit.

Is there any way to light a firework safely?

Bianca Bourbeau:  There are several things that you can do: Use what they call a Punk, a sort of an ember firing object, following instructions directly; and make sure that they’re actual publicly-manufactured fireworks, not the stuff in a brown paper bag that you’re not sure who made or what kind of explosive components are in there, and if they’ve met regulations standards, if they’ve met any of those things.

The way to tell if fireworks are allowed in your area is usually to observe that there are stands in the area that sell fireworks. So if they’re sellable in your community then you’re usually able to shoot them in your community.

For example, the City of Charleston doesn’t allow fireworks in their community and the City of North Charleston does. And you can purchase fireworks in North Charleston and get the reputable dealer kind. Just don’t go to Joe Schmo who happens to be on the corner. Go to the guy that you talk to all the time and has the properly packaged fireworks that meet the standards for manufacturing of that, because if you just get your hands on some fireworks in a brown paper bag, for example, you’re not sure what you’re dealing with – you want the ones that are packaged and wrapped and approved.

What responsibilities do people have when using home-based fireworks?

Bianca Bourbeau:  You have a responsibility to your neighbors when using fireworks. For example, if you’re shooting fireworks with the family and you accidentally set fire to your neighbor’s house, even though it was an accident and there was no intention, the neighbor can sue you for, of course, the cost of his house and all the stuff in it. So there’s a liability issue as well.

I’m not saying that you’d be totally responsible, but he may well take you to court for that because it’s his home and he would like to keep it secure and intact I’m sure. There’s that sense of community and responsibility, and a lot of times, especially if we’re in drought conditions, we’ll get a lot of brush fire calls. We get a lot of just accidental oopsies kind of fireworks incidents, and we can avoid those easily by just going to the public displays. The fire hazard and the injury hazard are the two biggest things with the family fireworks.

What about old fireworks, how safe are they to use?

Bianca Bourbeau:  They’re not. The older it is the more unstable the black powder that’s used in them, so the older it is the more unstable it is. I’ve seen people with fireworks they’ve had in the garage for five or six years and, oh my gosh, that’s maybe not a good idea. I wouldn’t recommend it, but, you know, folks are going to do it, and that’s sort of the unfortunate truth of it. And it depends on how they’ve stored. Are they stored in their original packaging? Have they been exposed to humidity? Have they been exposed to extreme heat?

You would check with The National Council on Fireworks Safety, fireworkssafety.org, and they actually may be able to give you a little bit more of the details on how to store your consumer fireworks.

What protections are in place for a municipality’s public fireworks display?

Bianca Bourbeau:  It depends on the size of the shoot and the audience, if you’re doing what they call a proximate audience, which is a small shooting with a small audience, kind of a stage setting, or if it’s more like these big, giant events. There are a whole lot of specific variations and the state fire marshal’s office and the local jurisdiction get together and make sure that everything’s in place because they also have to have fire department personnel on site as well so we’re there to put the fire out if anything starts.

And they’ve all been inspected and looked at before the displays go off, which is very different than what we do in our own backyard. Which is why I recommend the big community ones, and they’re beautiful. Here they do a lovely job every year. I’ve been to pretty much every one in the past ten years and they’re all really well done.

What are some of the safe places to watch 4th of July firework displays in the Charleston, North Charleston area?

Bianca Bourbeau: In North Charleston we have a big event at River Front Park, Everglades Drive. There’s a whole afternoon event, free vendors and music, and then the fireworks event comes in through – just after dusk.

The town of Mount Pleasant does one at Patriot’s Point. They usually have a little barge out in the middle of the river, and they shoot from the barge and it’s really nice. Isle of Palms does one. And the City of Charleston, they’ve got the Yorktown … Folly Beach also has an event.

What are fireworks best safety practices for a family with young children?

Bianca Bourbeau:  If the family chooses to use fireworks, which is not my recommendation, keep the children back and away from the fireworks. Have one person responsible for lighting the fireworks who has not — how do I put this lightly — been drinking, essentially. I’m looking for someone who is very sober and very aware of what’s going on around them. I also recommend keeping a bucket of water so that if there are any dud fireworks, to submerge them in water for 20 minutes.

They don’t recommend going over there and picking it up immediately when it hasn’t blown up because it might just be sort of simmering and it can blow up later, so you want to stay away from it for a while, probably about 20 minutes. Shoot one at a time, so this cascading effect, if I want to make a big display in my backyard, is not recommended. Shoot one object at a time, that’s also the manufacturer’s instructions.

Use a punk, which is that little lighting device for it instead of, say, a small lighter or a book of matches. And also never re-light a firework. Once it’s dead, it’s dead, because you don’t want to go over there and put your hands on something that may blow up in your face. Those are the really big things to remember.

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