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Training... Improving Safety with Adequate Training!

Updated: Nov 16, 2019

One of the biggest issues in dealing with fireworks is the many regulations, requirements, changing regulatory environment, compliance as well as training for staff. It is a full time job just keeping up with regulations and law changes. In addition to monitoring for regulatory changes, ongoing and a complete training plan is critical to ensure the safe operation of your pyrotechnic operators, drivers, management and team in general. In this post we will cover some of the most common areas we feel should be included in your training program. This ensure safe and compliant operations and reduces your liability in providing public displays.

Let's talk fire service

One of the biggest assets in the display operators arsenal is creating and maintaining relationships with the local fire service where your displays take place. In many cases, the local AHJ's are easy to deal with as long as you are following the requirements of NFPA1123 and ensuring your people are following proper procedures and looking out for each other through safe practices.

Commercial displays are a different animal than backyard displays. There are many considerations to include safety, rules of engagement, and in general just keeping everyone as safe as possible. In fact, due to the nature of using explosives to provide entertainment, we must ensure proper handling, storage, transportation and compliance with regulations. With proper planning, we can ensure that attendees and staff at public displays are safe and the if something were to happen that we have prepared properly to ensure we can respond accordingly. In this article I will talk about the rules and hopefully get you thinking about the proper response should something go wrong during a display.

In order to continually improve operational security, we have to ensure that we are creating the proper policies and then following them to keep everyone safe and to set realistic expectations. One of the things I have noticed with my fireworks crews is that we are starting to now operate as a well oil machine. Each member including shooters, spotters, safety officers and the lead shooter all have specific roles during displays and if everyone stays in their lanes, we work efficiently but most importantly safely. Below I outline what each persons role is and why it's important for us all to look out for everyone's safety during events. It should be noted that ANY of the individuals named below can halt a display at anytime if they observe any unsafe operations or if safety considerations warrant halting the display.

Shooters: These are the individuals that are hand firing or manning the electronic console that actually set off the fireworks devices.

Spotters: These individuals observe the display and look for shells that do not function properly and note if anything out of the ordinary happens. We also video tape all of our displays to ensure we can review them after the fact to look for anomalies that may impact safety.

Safety Officers: Safety officers are in charge of the overall safety training for an organization. They setup policies and rules for how events are carried out, how product is transported and ensure that new and emerging safety methods are employed if they will improve the overall safety of the company.

Lead Shooter: The lead shooter at an event is the one responsible for ensuring that fire officials and EMS can enter the shoot site safely should the need arise. They are responsible for the setup, discharge and all aspects of the display. In most states they must have had many hours of training in the storage, transportation, discharge and handling of explosive materials prior to being able to test and be certified to discharge large public displays.

AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction): Is typically a representative from the fire service that is responsible for any emergency response required during an event. The AHJ typically also reviews the site plan and discharge to ensure that the lead shooter is operating as required under NFPA1123.

Lack of Knowledge

There is one typical issue that I have observed from some AHJ's over the last few years. Most people that are in charge of inspections and to provide security and fire protection at public displays have little to no knowledge of what they are responsible for. In NFPA1123, it is clearly spelled out what the AHJ, shooters and others are responsible to carry out. In some cases we have observed the inspectors not knowing what to inspect prior to the display. The most important things to keep in mind is that certain distances are required to ensure safety of attendees and that it is better to have more distance than the bare minimums. Things can happen such as changes in wind, storms and other naturally or man made occurring challenges that can be mitigated easily if they are planned for in advance and through proper planning.

Many AHJ's provide the permit on site and only after they have checked or inspected the setup to ensure conformity with the regulations. The most important questions an AHJ should ask themselves are some of the following:

  • Is the lead shooter knowledgeable as to the proper discharge rules?

  • Is there adequate distance not only for current conditions but other conditions that could be present during the display (wind, rain, emergencies, etc.)

  • Is the site secure? And most importantly who is authorized to be on the shoot site?

  • Is the equipment setup properly and are all persons inside the fallout zone adequately protected with proper clothing, ear, eye and fire protection?

  • Are all water cans in locations where they can be easily access should they be needed?

  • Is the product stored onsite at a safe distance from the public?

  • What does the security begin? And when can the site be opened to the public after the display?

These are some of the most common questions but not an all inclusive list. Each shoot site is different and each AHJ is different in how they address these issues. Some AHJ's never even ask the questions needed to know whether or not the site is sufficiently protected and the public as well.

I will answer some of these questions later in this write up and also address some of the misconceptions and problems with regulations and how we can work as a team to ensure everybody is safe and that the public can enjoy this art form safely and with adequate protections in place to protect them from injury.

States are Different

It should be noted before we delve into this topic that each state is different. In North Carolina the distance is 70 ft per inch of mortars whereas in Virginia the distance required is 100 ft per inch. In most cases we will just do 100 ft per inch to account for things already mentioned such as wind and fallout zones. Some states allow open book testing and others (Virginia as an example) conduct closed book testing of pyrotechnic operators. I would prefer that operators can answer the questions without referring to the regulations or guidance but at the same time, if an operator can answer questions using references that are required to be on site, then that is acceptable.

It is the operators job to be familiar with the rules in which they are operating as well as the AHJ. Both must work to reduce or eliminate the liabilities of potential injury by working together to ensure the display can be carried out safely. Ensure that you have the most up to date information in the state that you are operating.

Classification of Fireworks and Devices - And how people get confused...

In short there are really 3 different types of devices used in displays which are 1.4G, 1.3G and 1.1G. 1.4G devices are typically devices that can be purchased by consumers and which do not require an ATF license to possess or purchase. 1.3G and 1.1G are devices that are classified by DOT as "Display Fireworks" and that do require an ATF license to purchase, possess and transport. In addition to these rules it's get quite confusing for some people that don't understand that an ATF license is treated differently if you are operating "In Commerce". When you are in commerce you must follow the rules of the DOT 49CFR. If you are not in commerce you do not have to follow many of the rules of DOT to include placarding, stopping at weigh stations and inspection points or having certain permits and paperwork with you when transporting or using energetic materials. When you are in commerce, you must placard, have a CDL with hazmat endorsement, have a proper vehicle for transport, stop at all inspection points and weigh stations, have proper bill of lading, insurance ($5 million) and many other requirements spelled out in the regulations to include a drug and alcohol testing program, random testing, training, safety briefings, etc. and the list goes on and on.

Wetzel Pyrotechnics works extremely hard to ensure compliance with DOT rules and regulations as well as the regulations of EPA, FMCSA, ATF and others to make sure we are doing what we are required to do. We provide training throughout the entire year and do regular compliance checks to make sure we follow the rules and that our people are aware of the safety and regulatory requirements needed to operate safely. The reason I decided to bring up compliance is because AHJ's all too often don't know the rules because they really only focus on the parts that are applicable to them (inspections) instead of realizing that there are people that operate outside of the "In Commerce" definition frequently. These individuals are not required to jump through all of the same regulatory hoops as display companies.

In short if you are not "in commerce" it is illegal to placard a vehicle. Local authorities would not even be aware of hazardous materials in this instance because the operator of the motor vehicle is not required to follow 49CFR. I have been told by code officials and others that they would prosecute me if they observed me moving explosives without a vehicle being placarded in the past. I know that I'm on the right side of the law so I take that with a grain of salt. Instead of understanding the rules and getting familiar with the regulations, they often respond based on their emotions instead of common sense. For instance, if you are carrying less than 1001 lbs of 1.4G materials you don't placard even in commerce. Only when exceeding that limits are you required to placard the vehicle, although all other DOT requirements do apply if "in commerce". Any amount of 1.3G materials require placarding if "in commerce", whereas if you are not in commerce, you can legally move any materials without placarding the vehicle.

You can see how code officials can get confused easily. We do compliance nearly ever single day whereas code officials only need to know these things when actually doing inspections.

Just know this. The classification of materials DOES NOT MATTER as much as how much material is present and how it is stored or being transported. 50lbs of 1.4G materials will response exactly the same way as 50lbs of 1.1G (gunpowder) if confined. When the local county limited my storage to 1.4G consumer I scratched my head as it doesn't matter what the DOT classifies it as for transport, what matters is how it's being used. You can easily turn 1.4G material into 1.1G material pretty easily just by taking it out of the packaging. I really am glad we have an opportunity to inform people and work with them to better the community.

Being Prepared

It goes without saying that having a copy of the regulations with you is a good idea but not only that, it's required by DOT as well as NFPA1123. If there are questions about any aspects of the display or operations, having the regulations handy can make a world of difference because you can show code officials what rules are in effect and what applies and when.

Make sure you are prepared to explain anything the could be misunderstood or that could be dangerous to your employees or attendees.

The Fallout Zone - The operators space

This is the most misunderstood aspect of the fireworks industry in my opinion. I can't tell you the number of times that a fire marshal, AHJ or county official just walked right onto the site without letting the operator know first. This is not only a problem but in some cases could prove to be deadly. It's a common practice for AHJ's to drive right up to the shoot location and get out of their vehicles even though vehicles (in most cases) are not supposed to be in the fallout area. Some in the fire service continue to ignore this rule but this is spelled out clearly in the code and also enforceable under ATF regulations. In short, what I want to share here is that entering a shoot site without the supervision of the operator is bad practice and dangerous. In some shoot sites we end up with thousands of feet of wire going to every single inch of the display site (especially during pyromusical events).

The display operator can deny access to the site for the purpose of safety and control of the explosive materials. In fact only authorized employee possessors and the license holder can handle explosives (with some exceptions). There should be no entry into the display site unless the display operator specifically escorts the code officials onto the site, PERIOD. The only exception is from a law enforcement perspective whereas they can intervene for unsafe behavior or witnessing alcohol being utilized within the fallout zone/shoot site.

The display operator is responsible for everybody's safety including the AHJ's which brings me to the next point of contention.

When a local policy is unsafe

I recently had an AHJ state that all materials that show up at a shoot site MUST be used at that shoot site. Not only is this not correct but it's also against the regulations. I keep finding that there are some people out here interpreting the rules in ways that could get somebody injured or killed because they think they know something about what it is we do. As a matter of point I would never tell a building inspector how to do their job. Their job is to ensure that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing, not to interpret the rules. So what a recent local AHJ told me that all materials must be used at the shoot site once they showed up because "It's always been done that way" I took exception to that statement for several reasons. The first being that if a firework malfunctions, the proper procedure is to ensure you put the firework out, by flooding with water until it extinguishes the flame, letting the materials sit for 30 minutes undisturbed and then carefully removing the device, packaging the device in the original packing it was brought to the site with and then sealing the package for return to the display operator so that it can be disposed of properly. This affords several benefits over the AHJ telling me that all materials must be shot that arrive. First of all, if a device is damaged or has gotten wet it is to be set aside and not fired. Secondly if you are forced to destroy a shell on site, this could cause injury should the device not operate as intended. Another consideration is that if a device has malfunctioned, the manufacturer may want to inspect the device to determine what happened or why it did not function as designed to make improvements to the design or to fix any identified manufacturing, shipping or other issues.

I don't know where this type of thinking comes from that all materials cannot leave the site because NFPA1123 says differently. Also ATF says that the display operator is in possession of the materials and no AHJ can force a licensee to destroy materials in any unsafe manner. Why would they want to force an unsafe action? It just baffles me.

Why Soaking Fireworks does NOT render them safe

One other misconception I often see from AHJ's is that by soaking fireworks that malfunction that they are somehow magically rendered safe. Nothing is farther from the truth. In fact we have soaked fireworks for months (yes you heard that right) and they still fire as designed.

Soaking a firework does one thing and one thing only, it puts out any smoldering ashes that may be in a mortar tube. Soaking a firework and discarding that firework (as often seen in fireworks literature) is also very dangerous because the trash man will probably crush that firework in their truck with a possible explosion occurring (remember, compressed or confined materials act differently).

Part of the issue is that many individuals are not aware that materials can act differently depending on how they are handled, stored and used. In display fireworks there is typically a half inch wall of glued paper and cardboard. These fireworks can technically sit in water for days and still function. Just know that soaking them does nothing to make them INERT regardless of what anybody tells you.

You can rarely stop a Finale after it has started

Everybody loves a good finale at a display. Unless fused in a certain way (which we typically do) a finale is nearly impossible to stop safely. You must wait until all materials are used in most cases. Doing things like individually fusing and firing each row will help in some cases but finales have also been known to have fire jump to the next rack pretty easily (see below).

As you can see this fire is jumping over 20 feet and can just as easily light the next row of fireworks in a dense packed finale which is fairly common. So with that being said, even if you fuse it in such as manner as you might be able to stop the next row from firing, it's not always possible to stop a finale once the command has been sent or the fuse has been lit by the operator, it will end when all materials have been expended.

About this Series

Well that's all for now. I intend to post articles frequently to spread awareness and to help other stop spreading misinformation. I'll try and post something each week if possible but as usual work and play get's in the way. The purpose of this series is to better inform and work with our local officials, other display operators and the industry. Many things are misunderstood and if you see anything that needs corrected please email us at and alert us to any errors.

This article was written by Kevin Wetzel, owner of Wetzel Pyrotechnics in Moyock, North Carolina. Kevin has over 25 years experience dealing with energetic materials but only started working with fireworks in the last couple of years. Mr. Wetzel is licensed in North Carolina & Virginia and frequently shoots fireworks up and down the eastern seaboard.

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