A fresh approach from the firework industry

Jon Wilson looks at the importance of risk assessment when planning large scale firework or pyrotechnic displays, and also explains the recent launch of the Pyrotechnic Assurance Standard Scheme, which aims to promote safety with defined best practice principals

In recent years there seems to be more and more firework and event special effect performances taking place, with many of these occasions now attracting larger and larger audiences who anticipate even more elaborate and complex performances.

Due to this recent market growth, competition has inevitability increased, causing some clients concern as to how best to measure one supplier offering their services against another, both artistically and in terms of trusting their ability to provide services,confident in the knowledge that the chosen operator is able to demonstrate their competence, especially with regards to safety. Very often selection seems to just come down to better marketing or who can put the biggest risk assessment on the table.

The assessment of risk
With any fireworks or close proximity special effects separation from operator, other performers and audience must be paramount. The planning phase of any pyrotechnic performance must consider site to product selection. To begin the risk assessment process one needs to accept the notion that there is no such thing as a totally safe, risk‑free display. The nature of all fireworks is that they will nearly always produce hot dropping embers and all aerial effects will always have a level of hazardous fallout associated with their normal functioning. To suggest otherwise is either through misunderstanding or possibly a clear demonstration of inexperience.

Pyrotechnics and energetic inert special effects for stages, festivals and sporting grounds, that are specifically designed to provide close proximity effects, have minimum separation requirements dependant on user experience and therefore are not risk free either.

It must, therefore, be reasonable to accept it is incumbent for any display operator to initially consider the two main concerns. Firstly, the products normal function coupled with their many possible malfunctions and, secondly, to combine the allowable maximum wind strength and direction as to whether the site and its exclusion is of a suitable size to manage any possible fallout.

Careful consideration should also be given when an attempt in offsetting the risk from one hazard may sometimes present elevated consequences to another. An historical example could be where reports advised that aerial shells were not always operating correctly and returned to ground as a dud. The reason was due to the single internal delay fuse failing to ignite the contents of the aerial shell with consequence that presented an obvious hazard to operators within the firing site.

To overcome and reduce this risk of malfunction, the inclusion of a secondary time delay fuse was incorporated, that reduced the frequency of a dud occurring but improved the risk because now the effect payload has been subjected to a further weak spot that could be susceptible to a violent in mortar explosion. The consequences to this malfunction could now disrupt other effects in the same racking system and send items in an unintended direction, if towards the audience it would be unthinkable.

The industry reaction was to improve mortar rack designs to better cope with that type of product misbehaviour but also keep the twin fuse option. So in a roundabout way there was benefit eventually.

Establishing how far is safe enough
Within the industry there are ‘rules of thumb’. For every 1mm of calibre, diameter equates to one meter of separation to audience – there are even guidance documents from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that specify values for default display separations. Caution should always be taken with these distances and are not completely reliable as neither provide any consideration for wind or effect size nor equipment. Debris drift and ballistics calculators do provide some benefit but equally, as it is based on maths rather than individual product, equipment and rigging methods should only be taken as guidance.

The only true way to subjectively measure practical separation values is by the thorough worst case (off site) testing to destruction of equipment, products and rigging methods to establish the basis and clear understanding of those separation requirements and to do so in any likely firing conditions. These results provide clear suggestion of a justifiable separation value. Only the company providing the service should be able to demonstrate those details.

The assessment of risk is therefore based on tolerable levels, specific to site, product and equipment knowledge, as well as the knowledge of the limitation is essential.

The regulations
The firework, pyrotechnic and energetic special effect industry has some of the most restrictive legislation governing its operations. The simple reason for this is the fact that all fireworks and pyrotechnics are classed as explosives and therefore have a need to be securely stored, transported and used with the greatest of care.

The process to completely understand these many explosive regulations, its legislation and guidance is complex and possibly deliberately vague. But whatever the reason, they seem to remain open to some individual interpretation possibly due to confusion. The attempt to define a better way to understand them and to work in a safe manner has been widely debated. There have been a few industry practices adopted, but even within these modern practices some debate unfortunately remains.

One of the many conversations
The industry has evolved in recent years, particularly with the progression of sophisticated electronic firing systems and digital choreography software that, when combined, create highly entertaining but complex performances. The consequence of these methods has required a more enhanced use of pyrogenic electrical igniters that are used to initiate the effects. Hundreds or even thousands are used in these modern displays. The trouble with this is that sometimes, under the right circumstances, they can unintentionally go off!

Unfortunately a number of incidents have already occurred in the last ten or so years and have resulted in a number of fatalities that were directly attributed to the use of igniters away from the place of intended use, often at storage sites in the fusing and preparation for displays.

The industry could remove most of this risk by simply fitting these igniters in their secured firing positions at the place of intended use. It’s just a matter of a bit of cultural change and has little discernable difference in site set up time.

How to help your display operator
Early bookings and confirmation is always very helpful and allows for far easier planning in terms of both safety and design. If your display is fired with a recorded musical track please do try to provide or confirm selections as soon as reasonable practicable. It will certainly help a designer overcome any short term brain freeze in inspirational terms and also provide time and opportunity to tweak parts that will eventually culminate in a far better display than one designed when rushed.

Please always read their safety paperwork and understand the cancelation terms with regards to poor weather. Your operator must always reserve the right to cancel.

A better future
The recent launch of the Pyrotechnic Assurance Standard Scheme (PyroPass) is a voluntary initiative and the only assurance pyrotechnic operator scheme in the UK. Its development has been based on many years practical experience working within all facets of the industry and aims to promote and maintain the highest standards within the explosive entertainment profession.

The scheme is open to every part of the industry, from individual operators to the largest companies, with aims to promote safety with defined best practice principals that create confidence for both providers and clients alike.

Setting standards and carrying out regular independent assessments provides buyers with the confidence that the pyrotechnic company or individual they employ is certified and meets these standards. The standards are revised annually to include any new regulations and aim to further develop a robust and meaningful measure of providers of pyrotechnics services and products against industry best practice and conformity to any regulations.

The scheme also provides assistance to businesses, individuals and clients alike, allowing the opportunity to offer advice and the new ability to demonstrate their competence and to promote a level playing field within the market so clients buying pyrotechnics, firework services or products have the confidence that the supplier has been fully assessed and conform.

To validate and maintain the schemes integrity the standards must be rigorously assessed and enforced without any bias or favour, but remain achievable to all commercial operators – although there may need some slight culture changes and possibly some improvements in housekeeping.

The scheme will also develop several advisory databases that allow stakeholders to widely share topical information from manufacturers, product alerts and storage security concerns, enabling the industry to better understand and provide the opportunity for a realistic new form of market surveillance.

Scheme membership also provides the opportunity to disseminate information between companies and individuals to improve the standards, whilst also creating any improved practices and adopting any new regulations to ensure the scheme remains current.

The scheme is therefore far in advanced to any other membership group code of practices or assessment for membership and is further backed up by independent assessment from a network of experienced industry professionals, who assess operators throughout all facets of their operations.

The scheme has been already positioned to representatives of trading standards, HSE, fire services, event safety professionals and insurance companies and also dangerous goods safety advisers. The proposal has already received very positive feedback, with even some insurance companies considering discounting premiums based on successful assurance as they perceive it provides an improved way to evaluate risk.

How can you help
Essential to the success of any industry standard schemes is the acceptance from clients and enforcers to embrace the benefits whilst providing its members the opportunity of representation by way of demonstration of their validated credentials, and provide the opportunity to market their businesses across a more level playing field.

After all, fireworks were the first chemical explosive and have existed since around the 7th century, so it’s possibly about time for some true industry standardisation of best practice to be fully adopted that takes the conversation out of the understanding to provide both the practitioner and client the confidence that all matters are fully adhered to if not surpassed.

Please accept this invitation for any local authority events or trading standards officers, event safety professionals or any other stake holder to share this article and to also explore the below website and decide for yourselves if the principal, process and long overdue strategy is something you would consider supporting – especially if you view the inclusion of all facets of the industry working collectively with the clear aim to benefit and further enhancement of public safety.

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