Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Harmless Fireworks or Lethal Explosives?

In his June 29 Huckleberries Online post, The Spokesman Review columnist and associate editor Dave Oliveria asked, "Should fireworks be banned altogether in Kootenai County (except for community displays)?".

Some of the responses were serious, others humorous.

Initially, let's understand that when we use the term "fireworks" as Dave did in his question, we are talking about Class 1.3G explosives (display fireworks) and Class 1.4G Explosives (consumer fireworks.) These materials are regulated by federal law in order to provide for safe manufacture, storage, handling, transportation, and presentation. Possession and use may also be regulated by state law or local ordinance for pretty much the same reasons.

It really doesn't matter if the intent of the manufacturer, transporter, wholesaler, retailer, or end user is profit or patriotism . Explosives (including "innocent" fireworks) that are carelessly and sloppily manufactured in countries with poor or nonexistent quality control and safety standards (Mexico and the People's Republic of China come to mind) will kill innocent people in the United States. They already have.

In 1980 the US Customs Service (USCS) seized several hundred pounds of Mexican "fireworks" being imported illegally into the United States near San Diego. The USCS contacted what was then the US Army's 70th Ordnance Detachment (EOD) in San Diego and requested the 70th to safely store and destroy the material. This request was consistent with Army EOD's mission at the time. The 70th complied with the request and stored the seized explosives (fireworks) in one of its bunkers. When it came time to dispose of the material, soldiers from the 70th backed a truck up to the storage bunker door. Soldier/EOD technicians SSG Nancy Oszakewski, SP5 Ron Kostenbader, and SP4 Joe Tripodi were in the bunker loading out the stored fireworks, the fireworks the Mexican manufacturers had planned to sell in the United States so that Americans could use "harmless fireworks" to vicariously relive the bombs bursting in air over Fort McHenry. In a flash, literally, Nancy, Ron, and Joe were incinerated in the bunker. The incident investigation determined the most likely cause of ignition and deflagration was that the Mexican manufacturers had carelessly packaged the "harmless fireworks" and allowed component material to contaminate the outside of the packaging. Investigators speculated that the friction created when the EOD technicians moved the packages allowed the material to rise to ignition temperature.

Only a few years later in Los Angeles, CA, police bomb technicians were called by uniformed officers to an apartment in Hollywood to investigate the contents officers found. The uniformed officers correctly assessed they had stumbled onto an illegal fireworks factory in the apartment, so they carefully backed out, evacuated the building, and called the bomb squad. When detective/bomb technicians Bob Gollhofer and Dan Johnson entered the apartment, they saw the chemicals, the plastic storage containers, and other signs proving that the uniformed officers' assessment had been accurate. As Bob Gollhofer carefully looked down into a plastic wastebasket, there was a blinding deflagration. Both detective/bomb technicians remember being dragged outside by rescuers. The subsequent investigation revealed the most likely cause of unintentional ignition was an electrostatic discharge, the discharge of static electricity. The electric charge had likely accumulated on the plastic storage containers and wastebaskets being used by the manufacturer. The unequal charge on one of the bomb technician's bodies very likely created the spark that caused ignition of the dustlike and highly flammable chemicals used in the manufacture of "innocent fireworks". Fortunately, both detective/bomb technicians survived, though one received permanently disabling injuries.

I don't know where the Coeur d'Alene Tribe gets the fireworks it sells in its stands on the reservation. Neither do I know where the "safe and sane" fireworks stands in Kootenai County get their product. I hope their products have been safely manufactured in the United States under good quality control inspections. I hope they are safely displayed and stored when not being displayed. I hope they are manufactured and transported legally and then handled and sold by people who have been properly trained to handle explosive material.

Here's a simple safety test for those who might be interested and going to visit one of the local fireworks stands either on or off the reservation: Do you see anyone in or near the stands wearing any clothing not made of cotton? Do you see any nylon windbreakers? Are the explosive products being put in plastic shopping bags? The synthetic plastic materials commonly found in our clothing and packaging are excellent generators of static electricity. All it takes is one electrostatic discharge spark to ignite any flammable residue on the fireworks' packaging.

As one who was once certified as an explosive handler and who has worked with bomb squads to produce pyrotechnic training exercises for public safety agencies, I won't go near fireworks stands or products of any kind, no matter how "safe" the sellers represent them to be. I would rather leave the pyrotechnics to the professional pyrotechnicians and sit in the bleachers to appreciate their workmanship. Here's a link to Pyrotechnics, Fire, and Explosion Effects by Michael McCann, PhD, CIH. The site is a basic but informative introduction to responsible pyrotechnic displays and materials handling.

To answer Dave's question: Yes, Class B (special fireworks) and Class C (common fireworks) explosives should be banned in Kootenai County except in the hands of trained and licensed pyrotechnicians.


Blogger Word Tosser said...

Wow, Bill, what an eye opener.
I am sending a copy of your blog to my son so he can read it as well.
He use to have a weekend party for friends and family and the big night of the 4th, he and my other sons would send off fireworks, one after another, with a neighbor across the street doing the same. Almost a dueling fireworks, that lasted at least an hour.
My son stopped two years ago, and decided to vacation instead. But I am forwarding this on to him, JUST in case he has thoughts of starting again. If you have read the Dave O's blog the past couple of days, you have seen where I love fireworks, and so therefore so have my children. This has given me a new light on this. While I haven't bought fireworks for years (kids are grown and we live in town now.) I am going to make sure all my children see this. THANKS...

2:52 PM, June 30, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lesley Presley Reply


Sorry to be so late in my promised reply; we went to Round Lake today and just returned. It was wonderful.

Anyway, I found your comments very amusing, and realized you are WOUND VERY TIGHT, too tight (perhaps ready to explode) I believe.

In your first paragraph you state: "These materials are regulated by federal law in order to provide for safe manufacture, storage, handling, transportation, and presentation."

Then, you do a one-eighty and state: "Explosives (including "innocent" fireworks) that are carelessly and sloppily manufactured in countries with poor or nonexistent quality control and safety standards (Mexico and the People's Republic of China come to mind) will kill innocent people in the United States. They already have."

Sir, with all do respect, that's laughable. Towit: "... regulated by federal law in order to provide for safe manufacture ..." Kinda' dubious, eh?

To prevent a china syndrome, so to speak, I believe any further replies from me regarding your comments would be unwise. Albeit, your statements do behoove many a unanswered inquiry of fact vs. a easily seen agenda of compiled data.

2:42 PM, July 01, 2005  

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