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Display Fireworks: Keep them off the Streets

Do They Shoot What they Ship

Article by Fire Marshal Greg Olrich

Over the last 10 or 15 years I’ve had the responsible of overseeing the fireworks displays that take place in our community. My routine has been to review the proposed shows then conduct on site inspections to assure the display is safe and follows the guidelines as spelled out by NFPA. Then once all the requirements have been met, a team of willing participants stand by during the shows in case things go aerie.

Generally the displays are entertaining and usually uneventful, short of an unexpected change of wind direction or the occasional dud that tends to make us a bit nervous.

But recently a conversation with an associate of mine from ATF prompted the basis for this article. We were brainstorming in regards to how display fireworks (Class B aerial shells) were reaching the streets and getting into the hands of the general public. While reviewing my system, we found what we think might just be the weak link. We then contacted others with similar responsibility in our area, and found a common link. Here’s what we found.

During the review of the displays one of the items we receive from the manufacturer is a list of aerial shells for the proposed display. I personally review about 3 – 4 shows that are relatively small, but still amount to 1,200 – 1,500 shells of varying sizes per show. Here lies my shortcoming, when I inspect the site I’m careful to check for clearances and safe zones, the stability of racks and the ready box. Then the focus turns to the shooters and there fitness. Are they providing proper security, limiting access to area, are there family members in the safe zone (they all want to bring there own spectators). But I had never taken the time to actually count the shells.

Just a warning, dependent on the manufacturer they will substitute alternate shells to improve the artistic value of the display. But, there should be a bill of lading or delivery slip indicating exactly what was delivered. Another tip is before you begin your count, ask the crew chief if all their shells are on the ground and if they are hauling additional shows on the truck, as this can make the count much more difficult. Also, if they indicate they do have additional shows on board, inquire if they are licensed to transport. It’s definitely going to take more time and personnel to complete a thorough count, but what I found was astounding.

Without exception, each of our shows had discrepancies. I’m not implying all shooters are trying to rip off shells, there are a lot of reputable companies out there, but here are the details surrounding our shows. We had two separate shows to inspect on Fourth of July. One was being sponsored by a local lake association and the other was a community event taking place on township property. Both shows had contracted their respective fireworks companies for many years.

In the first case, (the municipal show) the manufacturer had shorted the display 130 shells, which amounts to a dollar value of about $650.00. This issue was resolved with a credit for the next years show or reimbursement, as it was too late to do anything about taking care of it for this event. But following the display which lasted about 35 – 40 minutes, I waited what I felt was a safe period, approximately 30 minutes, after which I went to see if the shooter was set, I found about 50 – 3” shells on the ground with their fuses still chained together near there car. The racks were already in there truck and they were preparing to leave. I questioned them and the explanation was that during the grand finale, these shells which were chained together with fuse had not fired. I then asked why he had not shot them off once found, while the racks were still in place; he stated he was waiting for me to decide what I wanted him to do. Maybe this was just an innocent misunderstanding, you be the judge. He had to set up his racks and shoot off the remaining shells, as he was not licensed to transport, and the manufacture was not interested in sending a truck to haul them. Unfortunately the only spectators to this finale, was the fire department, as the spectators were long gone.

At the second show the shooter was angry that I question his integrity, but soon became very cordial when we found that a number of 50 and 100 shell cakes had “inadvertently” been left on the truck, even though he had assured us that all shells were on the ground. During this process he attempted to correct us with our count, stating that multi -break shells should be counted by number and size shells incorporated in each effect. Although once the missing shells were located in the truck, the count was right on the money.

I should mention these were large, well known companies. But unfortunately with the great number of displays on the holiday, they must subcontract out the displays

In conclusion, if you’re already taking the time to be more diligent than I was, kudos. But if like me you find you were missing this critical step, please take the time and effort to make sure what is being delivered to the site is actually making it into the air. Just maybe you’ll prevent a horrendous injury and make your communities safer in the process.

Greg Olrich is a 32 year veteran of the fire service. He is currently Fire Marshal for Independence Fire Department Michigan, a role he has filled since 1996. He is a member of NFPA and ICC. Has served on the technical committee for NFPA 17A, and is certified as a fire investigator, fire inspector and fire plans examiner. Fire Marshal Olrich can be reached by email at golrich@independencefire.us

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Arsnman4 May 21, 2010, 2:58 pm

    “But I had never taken the time to actually count the shells.”

    “In the first case, (the municipal show) the manufacturer had shorted the display 130 shells, which amounts to a dollar value of about $650.00.”

    We too historically inspected set ups and operations in accordance with NFPA 1123, 2006 including inventories in accordance with the permit and [4.1.3.1] to verify accurate shell size for the site location and safety zone. Two years ago on an inspection we discovered shortages also and found shell counts and sizes that didn’t match the submittal inventory and documented it on our report. The company filed a complaint with our administration detailing that our inspection went beyond what was required by code and that nobody else in the state where they shoot inspected load inventories blah, blah, blah.

    “In conclusion, if you’re already taking the time to be more diligent than I was, kudos. But if like me you find you were missing this critical step, please take the time and effort to make sure what is being delivered to the site is actually making it into the air. Just maybe you’ll prevent a horrendous injury and make your communities safer in the process.”

    Our advice would be to be careful when you encounter this type of situation and make sure you’re your administration supports the thoroughness of the inspection in case a complaint is filed with your jurisdictional administration or the civic group sponsoring the display. We no longer do pre-display inspections and that’s on them and fine with us since we have it well documented but we do miss the OT. The pendulum swings both ways I guess.

    Suppression is outside the firing zone in case of emergency. Keep up the great work Greg and being pro-active is not a bad thing

  • Nick Markowitz Jr. May 23, 2010, 10:46 am

    It does not help that several years ago state of Pa. went to ICC codes and its more restrictive fire works went out with ICC now the summer holiday fire works tents are every there even being set up in gas station lots and no one is doing anything about it.
    The biggest problem was revealed by a local TV station investigation which was fire works dealers
    who after people bought a certain amount of legal fire works those which stayed on the ground and under a certain grain of powder .They would give them the illegal stuff ( Bottle rockets etc.)as a way to get around the rules.
    End result a dramatic increase in fireworks injury’s and structure fires.
    states of NJ and NY have filed suit against Pa. because of this open and blatant sale of items to anyone. who buys a certain amount.

  • Brian Tyrell May 24, 2010, 12:36 pm

    Greg,

    Great article and a real eye opener. For now, we continue with the very important pre-display inspection. However, never really thought to count the quantity of the shells.

  • conn June 30, 2010, 1:56 pm

    I had the same issue in our city. Back in 2005 I noticed that the setup did not look as it did in years past. So I had my personnel count the mortars and shells and found a shortage of about 1500 shells, half of the entire show that was contracted. This was right before the show was to be shot. The shooter even acknowledged it so I know he was not at fault. They went missing between the factory and our show somehow. They were not on the truck upon arrival. The public did not even realize the shortage after the show. The city ended up not paying for half the show.

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