Recently there has been a spirited discussion on the merits of using electric matches to fire homemade fireworks shells at our club shoots in order to improve safety. I belong to The Crackerjacks, a mid-Atlantic fireworks club. This use of ematches would mark a change from the club’s traditional approach of attaching a length of Visco fuse to the quickmatch on each shell and lighting with a flame, manually of course.
And while this e-match discussion is still in process as I write this, I thought this particular post from Tom Handel was on-target enough that I should repost it in its entirety here.
Tom’s fireworks background speaks for itself. And I can personally speak for Tom’s reliability as a reporter of such things. He’s a man who has spent his whole career making sure his facts were right. I’ve known him long enough to know that I can bank on what he says.
I am not anti-ematch, nor pro-fuse. And this commentary is not about the rightness or wrongness of either method of igniting something.
Rather, what Tom so eloquently points out is that the very widespread, kind-of-automatic thinking that using ematches makes fireworks ignition safer can be a very dangerous fallacy. And that anyone who relies on this belief may be actually increasing their risks rather than reducing them.
Scene of Fatal Fireworks Accident – 4 Deaths – Ocracoke, NC – July 4th, 2009
Nor am I making a case for using or not using ematches in any particular situation.
But I do hope that Tom’s article will get you thinking about the process of using ematches and all that entails. It is after all, not just the firing of fireworks where there’s danger. The handling of them is just as critical. The horrible photo above is the result of mishandling fireworks during ematching.
It is not as simple an issue as pressing a button vs. lighting a fuse. There is much, much more to consider. And Tom only begins to do that.
I urge you to reprint or repost this article as you see fit using this URL:
Tom Handel’s post to the Crackerjacks Mailing List, 2/15/2012
Good Morning all,
I don’t often interject myself here, but y’all have touched on a subject near and dear to my heart – that being safety and its relationship with electrical firing. There have been many excellent points made thus far in the discussion, and I appreciate that it has been civil and directed toward problem exploration and solving. I just want to add a few thoughts to the mix for everyone’s consideration as we go forward.
But first, as I have a poor attendance record at CJ shoots in the last few years and there are many new members, I find that there are more voices in this discussion that I DON’T know (other than through the list) than that I DO know. So I beg your indulgence while I introduce myself for a moment so you’ll know where I’m coming from. Skip the next paragraph if we’re already acquainted or if you don’t care about introductions.
I’ve been a CrackerJack since 1994 (?? – or so) when James Carle and his then-significant-other introduced me to the organization by dragging me down to a Shagland shoot as their guest. A few years later I was the first Publications VP of the CrackerJacks and first editor/publisher of The Passfire, from 12/1997 through 12/1999. I’m a PGI member and have been a member of the PGI Safety Team since 1995. I served (among other duties) as PGI B-Line Shoot Boss for several years [I mention this because the PGI B-Line is a close (though not perfect) analog for the CrackerJacks "Experimental Area"]. I was First VP of the PGI for three years from 8/2004 to 8/2007. I am also a member of the Florida Pyrotechnic Arts Guild and the Western Pyrotechnic Association. I shoot shows, build fireworks (when I’m able), do pyrotechnics/explosives familiarity and safety training for law enforcement (Bomb Squads, primarily) and others, and indulge my passion for photography of fireworks. I still (so far) have all my fingers. In summary, though there are many others in the club better qualified than I am, I’ve been around a little bit and I know a little about safety. But enough about me.
I gather from what has been written in this thread that the purpose of obtaining and using electrical firing systems in the Experimental Area is to improve safety. This is a noble objective, but I suspect it reflects the widespread misunderstanding that the use of electrical firing systems inherently reduces risk/improves safety.
There are many good reasons to use electrical firing systems – particularly in a display context – but improving safety is not one of them. Fundamentally, electrical firing systems don’t eliminate risk; they TRANSFER the risk (and arguably increase it overall) in most scenarios. In a display context, they clearly reduce the risk to the shooter, while shooting, over the alternative – hand firing – by permitting remote initiation rather than up close and personal hand lighting of the display. However, the risk is not gone; it is just transferred to other parts of the process. In these other parts of the process, risk is actually increased due to the significantly increased sensitivity of matched product to unintended initiation by shock, friction, impact, induced current and static. The preparation, storage, transportation, handling, loading, and (if required) unloading of matched product are all significantly more dangerous than is the case with un-matched product. A few pertinent facts.
- In the industry, among the pro’s, the cause of a disproportionately large number of injury accidents has been traced to the unintended firing of an ematch due to mishandling of ematched product. Examples: Peoria, AZ, July ’99, New Orleans, LA, December ’99, Pomona, CA, [date unrecalled], Catawba, SC, July ’01, Ocracoke, NC, July ’09, Washington, DC, July ’09, and many more.
- The ONLY shell-related injury accident at the PGI that I can remember (I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m forgetting something) was caused by unintended firing of an ematch due to mishandling of an e-matched shell (Mason City, IA, 2005).
So, what’s all this mean for the CrackerJacks Experimental Area? Once the shell’s in the mortar, the wires are hooked up and everyone’s back behind the blast shield, life is good. But encouraging more electrical firing – unless very carefully done – will result in an increased number of sensitive devices (i.e., ematched shells and other devices) being created on site and
- being subject to mishandling during match installation somewhere on site,
- being subject to mishandling during transport,
- being subject to mishandling during placement (“Ooops!”) in ready boxes,
- being subject to mishandling during rummaging in ready boxes (“Dang, I know that shell’s in here somewhere!”),
- being subject to mishandling during loading, and
- being subject to mishandling during unloading in the case of misfires.
And in the case of the Experimental Area, the payoff for all this increased risk is … essentially nonexistent. Virtually no increase in safety when firing. “What??” you say. Yep. The safety benefit to the shooter isn’t even there except in the most extreme case (below). This is the Experimental Area, not a display, and there are fewer constraints on the use of (plenty of) Visco. That ematch does not afford the shooter ANY greater safety benefit than is provided by a piece of Visco long enough to allow a leisurely retreat to the safety of the barricade – AND it costs more.
Extreme case: If the shooter lit the Visco, started back up the hill in a leisurely fashion, but stepped in a gopher hole and broke his leg, and his fellow CrackerJacks were unable to drag his butt behind the blast shield before the Visco burned down, AND the shell malfunctioned, then, yes, he might have been better off with the ematch.
But there’s good news, too. Though impractical many times in a display context, for the Experimental Area there is a way to mitigate MOST of the downside potential outlined above. Specifically, require those desiring to electrically fire their shells (or other devices) in the Experimental Area to refrain from matching them until AFTER they are loaded in the mortar or otherwise ready to fire. Then, assuming no body parts over the mortar, if the match ignites prematurely while being installed or otherwise, for whatever reason, the shell handler may get a hell of a surprise, some non-life-threatening burns and lose some eyebrows, but he’ll likely survive. Contrast this to the probable consequences of the ready box going up because somebody dropped an e-matched shell in there.
Note: the risks associated with extracting an ematched misfire still remain and an appropriate protocol for this case needs to be developed also.
So that’s my $0.02 worth of food for thought.
I urge you to reprint or repost this article as you see fit using this URL:
And please weigh in on this. We’d like to see what YOU have to say. Just enter your comments below. Thanks. –Harry Gilliam