YOUNGSTOWN – On Thursday, millions of Americans will become enraptured by multi-colored, skybound explosives.
Fireworks have long been the pinnacle of Fourth of July celebrations, the thunderous conclusion to America’s proudest day. They have only become more popular over the years; according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, U.S. consumers purchased over 277 million pounds of fireworks in 2018, representing an 82 percent increase from the year 2000.
But before the U.S. fireworks industry boomed, it faced serious questions about its future.
The year was 1989, and according to William Weimer, time was running thin on major U.S. fireworks retailers.
“The issue was that the firework products coming into the U.S. at that time, 30 years ago, the fireworks coming into this country were very erratic,” explained Weimer, currently the vice president and general counsel of Phantom Fireworks, Ohio’s largest fireworks provider. Weimer entered the firecracker industry during this time of turbulence.
“The amount of pyrotechnic composition in the products was inconsistent, the construction of the products was inconsistent.”
If imported fireworks (the vast majority came – and still come – from China, the birthplace of gunpowder) were to remain hazardous, U.S. distributors feared they would eventually lose business due to safety concerns.
That led America’s six largest fireworks companies to meet in China in 1989. The topic of discussion? Regulation.
“These six companies decided that if we were going to stay in business, what we had to do was figure a way to make these products safer, to make them more compliant with federal law,” Weimer said. Phantom, which operates 78 stores across the midwest and east coast, was one of those six companies.
“If we didn’t do that, then there would be an increase in injuries and we would likely be forced out of business. States wouldn't allow fireworks to be sold that were non-compliant and were causing problems.”
That initial meeting was the genesis of the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory (AFSL), a third-party, non-profit organization that became the first testing agency to serve the U.S. fireworks industry. Previously, there had been no regulatory testing for fireworks being imported into the United States. Now, the majority of fireworks coming into the U.S. would have to undergo strict inspection.
According to Weimer, who has served twice as president of the American Pyrotechnics Association, the largest trade organization in the U.S. fireworks industry, this was the turning point for firecracker longevity on American soil.
“They set the tone, if you will, for testing of fireworks,” Weimer said Tuesday, calling from Phantom’s Youngstown headquarters.
Fireworks companies that joined the AFSL agreed to a random, 18-prong test that would take place at the factory level in China, before the products even reached U.S. turf.
The AFSL (through the international testing agency Bureau Veritas) would test 15 random samples from each case lot shipment. If one product in the shipment failed one of the 18 tests, the entire shipment was rejected and could not be exported to the U.S. If a shipment was approved, it would receive a counterfeit-proof sticker and be on its way.
The AFSL tests were thorough and specific. The organization tested every aspect of the firework, Weimer said, including exact launch angles (if a product is designed to function upright, it has to be able to be tilted 30 degrees without falling over) and shell integrity (a reloadable firecracker shell cannot become unstable mid-launch).
The AFSL also brought new meaning to the term ‘firework safety education.’ One of the organization’s primary goals was to make U.S. citizens more informed – from the minute they enter a fireworks store to the minute they leave – about how to properly use fireworks, as well as the danger of misuse.
Phantom, which operates 10 stores in Ohio, including one in Mansfield, took this safety concept to the next level. The company has launched a website dedicated to firework safety and has safety instructions for each of its showroom products posted in multiple places. Store employees undergo training to be able to show customers how to use each product safely.
Since the AFSL came into existence in 1994, data shows that the organization’s efforts have paid off. Fireworks in America have become safer – and, perhaps consequentially, more popular.
When the AFSL began testing 25 years ago, only 63 percent of U.S.-bound fireworks passed the test. In 2018, the pass rate rose to 93 percent.
“They still have some issues in some of the products that are tested, but obviously going 63 to 93 percent means that there’s been significant, significant improvement in the quality of the products,” Weimer said.
As the quality of U.S.-bound fireworks increased, injury rates decreased. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that there were approximately 12,500 fireworks-related injuries in the U.S. in 1994. In 2018, the CPSC reported just 9,100 injuries.
That drop is made more impressive by the fact that, since 1994, fireworks have become increasingly popular in the United States. In 1994, 117 million pounds of fireworks were shipped into the U.S., Weimer said. In 2018, that number had risen to over 277 million pounds.
"You put those [numbers] together and measure the injuries on the basis of how many injuries per 100,000 pounds of fireworks you use, and the injuries have dropped over 70 percent," Weimer said. "In 1994, there were 10.7 injuries per 100,00 pounds of fireworks brought in. In 2018, there were 3.2 injuries per 100,000 pounds of fireworks used."
By pioneering the regulation of U.S.-bound fireworks, Weimer believes the AFSL not only saved the U.S. fireworks industry, but also American lives.
“We believe it’s vitally important,” Weimer said of the AFSL’s work.
Since the AFSL began its program three decades ago, other regulatory agencies have stepped up to tighten import standards as well. The Consumer Product Safety Commission began requiring all fireworks be tested before coming into the country in 2008, when the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was passed. Two other independent testing agencies have cropped up in China, Weimer said, and there is talk of another American testing organization starting up soon.
Firework safety education has also improved during that time, Weimer said. Organizations like the CPSC now conduct firework safety seminars, and state fire marshals have become more vigilant about publicizing firework safety tips. While firework regulations have increased, Weimer also believes consumers have become smarter.
“I think it’s a combination,” he said. “I think certainly the fact that the products have improved and there’s been much less of a variance in the volume of pyrotechnic composition in the products – they’ve been much more steady, much more consistent, and that’s good. There are certain organizations that conduct safety seminars, safety press conferences.”
While other organizations have joined the AFSL in its effort to regulate and educate, however, it’s unlikely any other agency will have the impact the AFSL has had over the past 25 years.
Its testing standards are still the strictest – while the CPSC and others require products to pass 15 standards, the AFSL’s test requires 18 – and its scope is immense.
"Today, I would guess that the AFSL probably tests 70 percent of the fireworks that come into the country," Weimer said.
Staying safe this Fourth of July
Despite the fact that fireworks have become safer over the past 25 years, Weimer noted that 9,100 people were still injured using fireworks in the U.S. last year. According to the CPSC, 5,600 fireworks-related injuries occurred between June 22 and July 22. The most common injuries were burns to the hand or leg.
On Tuesday, a Toledo man died after being struck in the chest by fireworks. Officers on the scene said the man was attempting to put on a fireworks display for his neighborhood when his setup unexpectedly tipped over.
Even as fireworks entering the U.S. have become safer, Weimer advised consumers to use caution when handling the products.
“These products are ignited in order to function. They burn. And you have to respect that fact and you have to handle the products with extreme care and caution,” Weimer said.
According to Ohio law, the only fireworks that can be purchased and used by the public are “trick or novelty" fireworks. Anyone can purchase 1.4G fireworks from a licensed wholesaler or manufacturer; however, they must transport those fireworks out of state within 48 hours of purchase.
1.4G fireworks, including firecrackers and bottle rockets, may not be legally discharged within Ohio by anyone other than a licensed exhibitor.
“We definitely want to stress there is no such thing as a ‘backyard fireworks permit,’” said Brian Bonhert, public information officer for the Ohio Department of Commerce.
Violating Ohio’s fireworks law could result in a first-degree misdemeanor, Bonhert said, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or six months in jail. Federal law also prohibits explosive devices like M-80s and M-100s.
For those planning on using “trick or novelty” fireworks this Independence Day, Weimer offered four key safety tips:
1. Adults should handle the fireworks, not children. Children younger than 15 years old accounted for an estimated 36 percent of fireworks-related injuries last year, according to the CPSC. Nearly half of U.S. residents sent to the emergency room for fireworks-related injuries last year were younger than 20 years old.
2. There should be a ‘designated shooter,’ just like a designated driver. Before Independence Day festivities commence, one person in the group should be identified as the ‘designated shooter,’ meaning they will refrain from alcohol consumption for the night so that they can safely handle the fireworks. "You cannot have anyone who is impaired in any way whatsoever handling the fireworks," Weimer said.
3. Someone should be appointed as the ‘fireman.’ The fireman will be charged with handling the water, in case an ember falls from the sky and catches fire once it hits the ground. The fireman should be equipped with either water (preferably via a connected hose) or a fire extinguisher.
4. The launch area must be secure. Fireworks should be launched from a hard, flat surface. If they are going to be launched from grass or gravel, Weimer recommends placing them on a piece of plywood. Fireworks should also be braced by bricks, so there’s no chance they will tip over. In addition, the firework launch area should be clear of combustible material.
5. Spectators must keep their distance and stay vigilant. Weimer recommends spectators stay a minimum of 35 feet away from any ground-based fireworks, and 150 feet away from the launch site of any aerial product. Even with a designated shooter to handle the products and a fireman standing nearby with water, spectators should still remain vigilant of their surroundings during a fireworks display.
“You have to shoot the fireworks prepared that something’s going to go wrong,” Weimer said.
As long as consumers follow safety instructions and respect the fireworks, Weimer believes the rest will take care of itself.
“The biggest problem is that people don’t treat the fireworks with the respect they deserve,” Weimer said. “They’re not play things – they’re entertainment, but they’re not play things – and people must respect them, they must follow the rules.”