Fireworks Safety – Site Layout
Setting off your fireworks in the right place can make the all the difference to your display and ensure the spectators are kept safe. So whether your display is a huge public event or a small bash in the back garden, preparation is essential. You need to ensure the site is suitable for the fireworks you intend letting off. This section takes a look at various types of sites – including the typical back garden.
As entertaining as they are, fireworks are still explosives and need a suitable safety distance between them and spectators. The purpose of a good venue is to ensure this minimum distance is met, with extra margin for error where possible. The resulting area between the front line spectators and the first fireworks is called the safety zone.
If you’re very new to fireworks, you may not appreciate that another safety distance is required on the other side of the fireworks – for the fall out. This fall out (debris) can pose a safety risk second only to the fireworks themselves. This no-man’s land behind the fireworks is known as the fall out zone.
Between the safety and fall out zones is where your fireworks will be set up. This is known as the fireworks zone. Within this zone, care needs to be taken where you set each type of firework up, something which will be covered later in this section.
Finally, no firework display would be complete without some spectators, and not surprisingly they’ll be standing in the spectator zone (if they’re not, you’re in trouble!).
The safety zone
The safety distance between your fireworks and the spectators is determined by a number of factors such as:
- The classification of the firework.
- The type of firework.
- The firework’s power.
Consumer fireworks are currently classified as either Category 2 or Category 3 (Category 4 fireworks are for sale to, and use by professionals only; they are not covered by this guide).
Category 2 fireworks are also known as “garden” fireworks. They have a minimum spectator distance of either 5 metres or 8 metres depending on the type of classification. Category 3 fireworks are also known as “display fireworks”. They have a minimum spectator distance of 25 metres. You can read more about this in the Fireworks Classifications article.
You’d think it’s easy to create a safety zone of either 5, 8 or 25 metres. In practice however if you have the room, it is recommended to have more distance, especially for large displays. Remember too, the minimum distance must extend all around the fireworks, in particular along the sides.
If you are mixing garden and display fireworks in the same display, always ensure the respective safety distances are adhered to. So, it is safe to put the garden fireworks 5m or 8m away, and the display fireworks at 25m. It is also fine to put ALL the fireworks at 25m. But never put display fireworks at 5m!
Never ignore the correct safety distances even if the firework “looks small”. The safety distance is there for a reason. Ignore it and you not only risk injury to spectators, but possible criminal or legal action if you were deemed to be acting irresponsibly.
Unlike the audience, firers will be protected with goggles, helmets etc, and are therefore exempt from these distances. However, use common sense. Firers should not stand too close to fireworks even with protection and never ever stand directly over them.
The fall out zone
Remember the old saying “what goes up, must come down”. This is especially true with fireworks, which can create a huge amount of fall out. A special zone to the rear of your fireworks is essential to catch this debris safely.
This is the sort of fall out you can expect from each firework:
The most dangerous fall out of all, display rockets can come back down to earth complete with stick, motor casing (in some cases aluminium lined!) and in many cases, part of the head. This debris hits the ground at some speed, and finding spent rockets in the fall out zone stuck firmly into the earth is not uncommon. Not the kind of thing you want to connect with a spectator’s head, or a car, or a greenhouse…. If you intend using the bigger display rockets, or send up a lot, please take this into account with a large fall out zone (eg. 50m or more). Garden rockets pose less risk because they’re smaller and in many cases made from card, not plastic.
Cakes and candles
These eject shells made from card or plastic and fall out consists of the empty tubes (and lots of litter). However some shell casings can be quite big and some have ceramic bases, so it’s important they fall on grass, not people or structures. Some debris close to the firework can be glowing, or hot, when it hits the ground.
These pose more of a risk when they’re going off than with fall out, which consists of much the same material you’ll get from cakes and candles. Unlike cakes though, all the fall out comes down at the same time!
Fountains and wheels
Amongst the safer fireworks, the only fall out from most of these is soot over a small area. Bear in mind though that the sparks from these fireworks can reach ground level, so they should not be set up near other fireworks or sensitive set pieces.
It’s important to have a fall out zone to catch any debris safely. Otherwise, your display becomes somewhat of a lottery, and it’s only a matter of time before something – or someone – gets hit. Fall out is of course the number one reason why firers need to wear head protection, the “pitter patter” of falling debris all around you is matter of course in any big display.
The fireworks zone
This is where all the action takes place, the fireworks zone! Here you’ll set up and fire your arsenal.
Ensure you have enough space to:
- Move around the fireworks without having to jump over (or trip over) other fireworks.
- Move to a safe distance after lighting each one, without coming into the path of one already going off.
- Accommodate all the firers without bumping into each other.
- Structure the fireworks with the bigger ones at the back.
- Have an escape route in case of problems.
- Set up the fireworks so they are not too close to each other.
The fireworks zone should preferably be a flat and firm lawned surface. A playing field is ideal. A hard surface is more of a problem because it will be difficult to secure the fireworks, but it is not impossible. It’s also helpful if the area is generally dry, so avoid dips or the bottom of slopes.
There should be no overhead obstructions such as trees or cables. These can deflect the flight of a shell or rocket.
For bigger displays try and situate the firing area where there is good access for you and your equipment. You do not want to carry fireworks, tools and wooden stakes hundreds of yards while you are setting up.
Layout within the fireworks zone and wind direction
It’s important within the firework zone to take some care where you position each type of firework. This is a suggested layout:
The idea is to put the most powerful fireworks at the back, and the less powerful near the front. As long as you have a 25 metre gap at the front of the fireworks zone (assuming display fireworks) this type of layout adds some extra space between the bigger items and the audience. Anything big and powerful should go towards the back – including mortar mines and fan cakes, which are very powerful.
You’ll note that rockets are at the very back, this is because their fall out is the most dangerous of all. Although they’ll be angled slightly so they fly over the fall out zone, not every flight is perfect (especially in gusty winds) and this extra distance is recommended for added safety. It’s also handy to have a dedicated firer for rockets particularly if you’ll be firing from reloadable racks. Putting him/her at the back gives them plenty of room to manoeuvre.
You could memorise the running order, but in the heat of battle that you can quickly get out of sequence particularly if you have to change plans due to an item not firing. Experience has shown that using the layout of your fireworks to dictate order is much simpler.
For example, have a look at how these cakes are set out:
Starting with cake 1, the firer lights this and then moves across to cake 2. This will take them a safe distance away from cake 1 while it is going off, and in the right place for the next firework. As cake 1 is finishing, the firer lights cake 2 and moves over to cake 3, and the process is repeated through the sequence.
If you have more than one firer, each firer can have their own section of fireworks.
As you can see here, you set the fireworks up in the right firing order. In the display itself, all you have to worry about it getting to the next firework. The sequence is already laid out!
Numbering your fireworks can help some firers, but you can normally see which is the next firework in a line – the waterproofing will be blown off. You can also use tin foil on the top of each firework, this protects it from sparks and gives a very clear visual indication of whether it has fired or not.
If you need a prompt at any point (eg. to break away from the line and go and set off a rocket or firework in a different area), use whatever method will work best for you. Some members use a visual marker like a glowstick next to the last firework in a sequence.
On the day you’ll also need to take into account wind direction. Ideally the wind should be blowing towards the fall out zone. You may need to move things slightly to take this into account, or extend the safety distance to compensate.
At some venues it may be impossible to have the “perfect” wind direction blowing from front to back. Less desirable is a side wind, but this can be compensated for by having a larger safety and fall out zone down wind and angling the fireworks accordingly.
Wind blowing towards the audience is bad news. Unless you have a huge safety zone, you’ll have to think about avoiding large items such as Category 3 rockets.
It’s often the case that a windy afternoon calms down a bit in the evening, so don’t worry if it’s a bit gusty while setting up (unless the forecast is for windy conditions, of course). If the wind is still strong when you come to display, but moderating, consider pushing back the start time, eg. from 8pm to 9pm, as a last chance to see if things improve.
Surprisingly, some wind is better than none at all (within reason) – it clears the smoke away.
In the event of really bad weather your safety, and public safety, are paramount. Although a called off display disappoints, ultimately people will respect why you had to do it. Disappointment through lack of fireworks is better than anger through injury from a dangerous display. Never, ever feel pressurised into continuing if it would be unsafe to do so.
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