Ah, the smell of gunpowder hanging in the air on the Fourth of July... the crackling and sparkling, the giant displays that light up clouds of smoke, the tar marks and refuse strewn all over the street for the sweepers to clean up in the morning - what child can resist the call to light fireworks on Independence Day?
July 4th is a wonderful holiday, ranking right up there with Halloween for most children, but it's vitally important to practice firework safety as you and your family enjoy the pyrotechnics. Did you know that over half of all fireworks-related injuries occur due to firecrackers that are legal in many places and widely regarded as being relatively safe? Not only is personal injury a concern, but neighborhoods must also be concerned about damage to property (a bottle rocket on a dry roof can cause a conflagration). Fireworks are supposed to have warning and safety labels, but too often they're translated incoherently from another language. Here are some safety guidelines for fireworks.
- Careful around sparklers. For many neighborhoods, the festivities wouldn't be complete without sparklers. What's more, it seems like every family member, old and young, can participate in the treat, whereas lighting bigger displays seems better left to the mature family members. However, sparklers burn at around 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing severe burns every year. Make sure that everyone holds the sparklers well away from others, wearing gloves while doing so. And young children should not be allowed to hold a sparkler without an adult holding onto it as well.
- The other small stuff... Notice a trend here? Small stuff like firecrackers and sparklers causing significant injury every year? It's because people underestimate the ability of these things to do damage, adopting a cavalier attitude toward them. People often hold onto Roman candles as they shoot their fireballs, even though Roman candles have been known to shoot backwards from time to time. Roman candles should be firmly planted in a pot of dirt when you fire them off.
Similarly, many people play around with bottle rockets - aiming them at each other, lighting and throwing them into the air, or holding them as they ignite, or even cutting the stick off entirely. A rocket deserves a good rocket launcher, not some bottle or can that could easily topple over, allowing the rocket to shoot horizontally rather than into the air.
- Loose clothing can easily catch fire. Don't wear baggy clothing. In case of an accident, steer clear of polyester fabric that melts onto your skin when ignited.
- When you light anything, move away from it! Don't linger over or nearby any kind of firework, whether a big cake or a small firecracker.
- Use a punk. You know those cheap sticks that look like incense and are sold at fireworks stands (and often given away for free with purchase of fireworks)? Known as punks, those devices are your friends! Lighting one of them gives you a way to light firework wicks for quite a while without having to keep lighting matches or grate your thumb against lighters. More importantly, they don't produce a large flame (which can easily lead to accidents and misjudgment). And most importantly, punks allow you to stay a greater distance from the firework as you light the wick. It doesn't matter what you're lighting (bottle rocket, smoke bomb, M-80, artillery shells or any kind of fireworks) - use a punk.
- What to do with duds. We all hope that our hard-earned money will buy us fireworks that work, but it is a sad truth that everyone encounters duds. While determination is a virtue at other times, you should never try to relight a firework that you've already tried lighting to no avail. If it fails to produce, you should douse it with water and leave it there for a while. Don't get close in order to examine it!
- Speaking of water... don't light fireworks without a trusty bucket filled with water in case of fire or to just soak the duds.
- Don't try to blow up glass bottles or melt plastic. Yes, I was a kid once, and I remember how cool we thought it was to blow up bottles. But I don't think it's cool now that I know plastic fumes are toxic or consider how lucky we were that we weren't impaled by flying shards of glass. Bad idea!
- Light fireworks away from any houses, trees, bushes and grass. Sparks can quickly ignite dry vegetation and roofs.
- Leave your unused fireworks a safe distance from the area of ignition. If sparks can catch vegetation on fire, imagine what they can do to other little gunpowder-filled goodies.
- Supervision of young kids. How can we keep kids from blowing up bottles and misbehaving with firecrackers? Supervision, that's how! Any child younger than teen years should definitely be supervised during the pyrotechnics. Very young children shouldn't be allowed to light anything.
- Alcohol. Adults like fireworks, too - we all know that. But fireworks can inspire irresponsibility in adults as well as children. Adults have the added temptation to enjoy an alcoholic beverage (or several) at barbecues and block parties on the 4th of July. But if you're passing around that pitcher of Margarita or sucking back a few beers, you shouldn't be lighting off fireworks as well. To stay safe, it's got to be one or the other, for the same reason that people who've had drinks shouldn't drive or operate heavy machinery. Why would we ever think it's safe to be handling gunpowder when we're inebriated? Many Americans mix alcohol and fireworks with tragic consequences.
When I was growing up, we gleefully broke just about every single one of these rules, right down the list (even the bit about polyester). Only by remarkable luck were most of us were spared injury, surviving the fumes, flames and what would best be described as homemade bombs. The wake-up call was when my dear friend got hit in the face by a bottle rocket; rather than being blinded permanently, he got away with some minor burns. We were simply lucky. I think we were spared in order to tell others how to avoid our mistakes. Please take these safety tips to heart.
Set a good example for your children (as well as any adults in need of it). Teach them proper respect for fireworks, and show them that safety doesn't require that we temper our enjoyment of them. Nothing is less fun on the 4th than injury and property damage. But as long as you observe precautions, fireworks can bring out the best in a neighborhood and herald those summer days we all love.