Firework displays should be handled with care, asserts UK law specialist Peter Forshaw…

Firework events are no longer restricted to Bonfire Night. From New Year’s Eve celebrations in particular to weddings and corporate events, fireworks can be relied on to make any special event ‘go with a bang.’ Approximately 200,000 revellers were once again expected to line the banks of the River Thames on December 31 for London’s spectacular firework display. Theme parks and large communal park areas are also popular venues for such spectacles.

However, in the relaxed euphoria such events, it must not be forgotten that fireworks are potentially dangerous and with the safety of the public being paramount, it is essential to maintain high standards of health and safety at all times. Department of Trade and Industry figures show that there has been a 22 per cent rise in firework related injuries at large public displays since 2003, with rockets being a major source of injury. A recent poll by Churchill insurance highlighted that over two million policyholders have reported property damage due to stray fireworks.

Organisers of displays are warned to check that all necessary preparations have been made to ensure that events run without incident. Being well prepared can help park operators and other event organisers to avoid exposure to potential liability and expensive claims. To protect themselves, organisers of large public firework displays in particular should ensure that they have detailed plans in place and follow the HSE and DTI guidelines for safe and successful events.

Best practice

Where possible, it is preferable that park operators enlist a specialist company to exclusively run such firework events. Organisers should engage an accredited display company (i.e. a member of an approved organisation such as the British Pyrotechnists Association). In those circumstances, provided the park operator is able to show a diligent selection process for selecting the display company, to ensure their competency and show that they hold insurance cover in the event of any incidents, then the park operator should be best protected against any repercussions arising from the organisation of the event.

Such organisations ensure that their members follow best practice when arranging such events to ensure that they are as safe as possible while minimising inconvenience to the local community. The BPA, for example, as a matter of best practice requires all members to liaise with the police, fire services and local authority as a condition of undertaking any firework display.

In the event that park operators wish to run their own event, they should ensure adherence to the numerous provisions of the DTI guidelines to ensure the safety of their customers and employees.

Spectators and cars should be marshalled in position at least 25m from the firing zone in the upwind direction. Fireworks to be set off should be positioned away from buildings and hazards like overhead cables allowing at least 50m by 20m for the firing zone, and 100m by 50m for the dropping zone in the downwind direction for conventional fireworks.

Obviously if special commercial fireworks have been purchased further guidance should be obtained from the manufacturer or the Explosive Industry Group as to whether these safety zones should be increased. Whatever the size, operators must ensure that the display area is clearly demarcated by appropriate signage and ensure that public access is denied.

Those lighting the fireworks must ensure that the cases are stored in sealed containers, out of reach of flammable substances. Smoking and alcohol near the fireworks must be prohibited. Unextinguished fireworks should be left at least 30 minutes before attending to them and spent fireworks should be discarded carefully (not burnt) once the public have left.

Some visitors might be tempted to bring along their own fireworks, therefore appropriate warnings to prevent this may be required.

Staff and public safety

A designated safety official should be appointed to oversee the event. In addition, an appropriate number of stewards (at least one per every 250 visitors), with appropriate visible clothing should be present and all stewards should be aware of their specific duties, including safety drills and who is to contact the emergency services in the event of an incident.

To appropriately estimate the requisite number of stewards requires awareness of likely attendance, which may be clear from past experience but best addressed by means of a ticket only entry system. Finally, compliance with manufacturers’ guidelines should be distributed and read by all relevant staff.

Liaison with the neighbouring community, police, fire brigade and first aid organisations is crucial and ensures safety and security for the public. These organisations can help with establishing sign-posted first aid points and the supply of sufficient fire extinguishers.

To ensure the safety of the pubic on site a public address system should be in operation, with appropriate entrances and exits to site, keeping vehicles and public on foot separate.

Overriding considerations

In the days leading up to the event, and on the morning itself, park operators should update themselves on likely weather conditions. While undesirable, in particularly windy conditions the event should be cancelled irrespective of the inevitable disappointment. Also, operators must check insurance policies to ensure that sufficient insurance cover is in place in respect of personal injury and property damage. Notwithstanding rising premiums coverage is essential, although many insurers are wary of extending policy coverage to such events.

Finally, when planning the celebration, organisers need to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Fireworks Act 2003 and Fireworks Regulations 2004 which prohibit the use of fireworks after 1am on New Year’s Eve and after 11pm on other nights (particularly relevant for any pre-event rehearsals) and ensure noise levels do not exceed 120db. Failure to comply can result in up to six months imprisonment or £5,000 fine.

The biggest threat is posed by imported fireworks. Operators should avoid these no matter how attractive they appear on cost, and instead ensure fireworks comply with British Standard 7114.

By following these simple guidelines, organisers will ensure that fireworks displays are not remembered for the wrong reasons.