We were watching the fireworks display last Friday night when it occurred to me that this was one of the longest and most spectacular fireworks displays I’d ever seen. I expected to be jaded by now, since I’ve seen scores of these already and know exactly what to expect. It seemed like they had several mini-finale’s in the course of half an hour, with a pretty big finish. This was my tax dollars at work, so I figured I’d do some research.
I’d love to find data on number of events, duration and numbers of fireworks used, but alas, I only found this, a list of fireworks sold for retail and display use between 2000 and 2013. The total column on the left indicates a patriotic upsurge in firework usage, but the display column on the left indicates a sudden decline at the same time. Was there a decline in permits issued for displays? More efficient fireworks? Permits suddenly so onerous towns just gave up and consolidated? A count of display events would tell, but I couldn’t find that data in time for this article.
Drought is a factor. Cities that buy fireworks always have rain dates, and a rainy 4th can be followed by a dry 5th or 6th. They paid for the things; might as well use them. In years with droughts and high flammability, though, fireworks are a real danger to life and property. Manufacturers “hotel” their fireworks for drought markets in those years. Hotelling allows them to produce less in subsequent years, but still sell out their stock, since the pyrotechnic houses still have all these expensive and hazardous shells on hand. The whole nation is rarely in drought, but enough of it is that there’s usually some hotelling going on.
The risks of fireworks are actually quite low, and the risks of display fireworks like the one we saw are almost nil. Of the 7,400 injuries from fireworks around the 2013 July 4th holiday, only 2% were from display fireworks. Display fireworks have become much less hazardous than before because of remote computer control. When I was a kid, pyrotechnicians loaded and reloaded a dozen or more mortar tubes with shells, then lit their fuses. Getting close to the launch site was hazardous, and required respect and care for the danger. Now, pyrotechnic displays use one mortar tube for each firework, and involve hundreds of mortar tubes. There’s an app for that now, though the control is still wired. Making firework control truly internet enabled would be a security risk, in case somebody hacks into the control app.
Safety organizations talk about the risks of fireworks when they really mean “hazard”. Looking at the lined table, I’d say a firework is much less hazardous than a car. Each one weighs a fraction of a pound, on average, after all. Fireworks only killed 8 people in 2013, after all.
A still from this year’s big event, a drone fly-through of the fireworks display in New York City
Thursday, I think I’ll write a bit about motorcycles. I want to look twice at them.