Detroit Fire demonstrates fireworks safety with a bang

Jo Kroeker
The Detroit News

When the hollowed-out watermelon on the cinder blocks exploded in the back parking lot of Engine 27, scattering rind chunks on the cement, everybody jumped.

Using examples, Fire Inspection Capt. Chris Dixon re-enacted fireworks-related injuries and fatalities to teach safe handling techniques.

In the case of the exploding watermelon, Dixon used it to demonstrate what happened two years ago when an inebriated man held a lit firework behind his head. The victim was killed when the explosive device detonated.

Using legal fireworks, he showed how a lively party can turn deadly when there’s a lack of child supervision, unclear or disregarded instructions, alcohol or even animals.

Since fireworks are unpredictable, Dixon cautioned users to follow instructions carefully, never let children handle fireworks (especially without parental guidance) and stay sober. Other advice: keep fireworks outside the home, keep them from animals, check smoke detectors and practice fire evacuation plans.

Next, he brandished the Victory Sword, a fireworks sword with a 2-inch spark when lit. The instructions say “don’t point this at others,” but Dixon said that is what kids holding a sword will naturally want to do.

He held it up to a blue dress shirt on a dry-cleaning hanger and after a minute, the dress shirt sparked, caught fire and burned down to a few threads.

Dixon critiqued the ambiguity of the instructions printed on some fireworks. One instructed users to light the fuse, but the fuse was hidden under a plastic cap, which someone had lit, causing it to backfire.

Some fireworks seem engineered to point, but the cardinal rule of fireworks is never to point them — at anyone or anything.

In his third demonstration, he pulled out an illegal firework that had been supplied to him: a quarter-stick of dynamite with no markings and no instructions. He lit it next to a water cooler labeled “Abandoned car,” partly filled with gas. The cooler flew 50 feet and heat from the blast reached the audience members – who had been instructed to stand far away – behind glass.

Finally, he lit a Ratta-Tat-Tat Fountain firework, which reaches 900 degrees, and put a wigged mannequin next to it – a stand-in for a child looking at the sparks up close without supervision.

The mannequin’s hair and profile were singed, but Dixon said a real child would have suffered at least second-degree burns.

Detroit Fire Inspection Chief Shawn Battle motioned to a card table laden with fireworks.

“We used to supply our own because we confiscated so many, but this year, we had to have them donated,” Battle said.

As for documenting the number of fireworks-related incidents, Battle said it’s hard to differentiate on site, when the priority is saving lives.

“A lot of times, whether it’s fireworks-related is not reported, there’s no official tracking,” he said.

This year, there’s another complication: According to Detroit Fire Marshal Gregory Turner, the state of Michigan did not delegate the fire departments to do inspections of fireworks stands.

Because of that, Turner said, the department cannot enforce anything but can only make a referral to the state if a stand is unlicensed.

He said people looking to sell fireworks must apply by February and should check the State of Michigan fireworks program website for more information.

State lawmakers in 2012 loosened Michigan’s fireworks regulations, making a variety of consumer explosives legal. A year later, the law was amended to allow municipalities to ban fireworks except during the day and early night hours of federal holidays as well as the day before and after them.

Despite complaints about noise, efforts to repeal the law have been unsuccessful.