You want to hear the bang of holiday fireworks, not feel it. And yet every year, thousands of unfortunate revelers do. In fact, the latest report on fireworks from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) revealed that there were 2 fireworks-related deaths and an estimated 9,000 hospital-emergency-room–treated, fireworks-related injuries in 2009— 67 percent of them occurring right about now, in the one-month period surrounding the Fourth of July.
Ralph Apel, a fireworks exec and president of the National Council on Fireworks Safety, a nonprofit organization founded by the fireworks industry, offers these tips on how you can keep your family and guests safe, and produce a great, Independence Day display:
# 1. Appoint a designated shooter the day before
Rum and coke and Roman candles make a dangerous combination. “Typically, someone who’s been drinking decides to shoot the fireworks—they don’t plan out their area of shooting, and they don’t know what’s going to happen when they shoot each item. And that’s a recipe for disaster,” says Apel. “If you appoint a designated shooter ahead of time, he or she will have time to think about the job, and they’ll be much more likely to take it seriously that day.”
#2. Read labels
Apel says the single most common mistake people make in handling fireworks is lack of forethought—put simply, not knowing what the firework is going to do when lit, and so failing to give the firecracker a wide enough berth. Eye injuries are a typical result. (Contusions, lacerations, and foreign bodies in the eye make up 20 percent of fireworks-related injuries.) “Always read the label on whatever you’re shooting,” says Apel. “You need to know the trajectory of the shot in particular, and whether to expect a shower of sparks, which can occur over 6 to 10 feet. Minimum berth for a small ground device is 20 feet; minimum berth for aerial items is 40 feet or more. Shooters should always wear eye protection.” No label because the firework’s homemade? Don’t shoot it.
#3. Never buy from the trunk of someone’s car
According to the CPSC report, the vast majority of 2008 fireworks-related injuries were from legal fireworks, but three of the seven deaths were from illegal, homemade fireworks—which, because they’re unregulated, are particularly risky. “One very dangerous item people perceive as fireworks but isn’t is the cherry bomb or M-80,” says Apel. “These are illegal explosives, not fireworks. There are no standards for these things. You don’t know how the long fuse is going to burn, and quite often they burn very fast—which is how you lose a finger or even a hand.” They’re federally banned, but people end up buying homemade ones from “a friend of a friend.” A word of advice: Don’t.
#4. Maximize your bang, minimize the potential for burns
Nearly two-thirds of all fireworks injuries involve burns, and about half of all fireworks injuries are to hands and fingers. To minimize the chance of burning your hands and fingers and, at the same time, maximize your display, Apel suggests purchasing multishot aerial devices. “You light the fuse once, and you get anywhere from 12 to 15 shots,” he says. Just make sure no part of your body is over the fuse when you light it.
#5. Create a launch platform
In other words, light fireworks on a smooth, flat surface, away from the house and any dried grass or leaves, which may catch on fire. This is especially key for bottle rockets. “You should never hold them in your hands after lighting, because you can get burnt when the engine starts,” says Apel. “Plus, it can move sideways.”
#6. Have a bucket of water handy
To douse any flames, of course, but also in which to discard spent sparklers, so kids and adults don’t step on them and burn their bare feet.
#7. Steer clear of smoke if you have asthma
Very large, citywide fireworks displays can cause spikes in unhealthy levels of air pollution for a few hours after the event. If you have asthma or difficulty breathing, you may want to watch from your window. After closing it.