July Fourth's sparkling hazards

The Baltimore Sun

A deputy state fire marshal lit the fuse of an M-100 explosive, and a colleague shouted: "Fire in the hole."

Seconds later, a synthetic hand was half blown to bits as part of a demonstration by fire marshals and doctors. Each year, they aim to prevent injuries over the July Fourth holiday by emphasizing the dangers associated with handling fireworks.

Yesterday's demonstration, which also included a hard-boiled egg (think human eye) taking the brunt of a small exploding firecracker and a shirt rapidly engulfed in sparkler-induced flames, was organized by the Office of the State Fire Marshal, the Metropolitan Fire Chief's Council and the Maryland Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons. All of those groups are expecting to be busy in coming days.

Thousands of Americans are expected to injure themselves or others at private fireworks displays between now and July Fourth.

"Some people, as much as we preach going to the public displays, have to have those backyard displays," said State Fire Marshal William E. Barnard.

In much of Maryland, where, fire officials say, 100 public fireworks displays will be held in the next two weeks, only hand-held and ground-based sparkling devices are legal for private use. In Howard County, Harford County and Ocean City, only hand-held sparklers are legal, and in Baltimore City, Prince George's County and Montgomery County, none is legal.

"We just don't think it's appropriate," said Baltimore City Fire Chief James S. Clack. "Baltimore City has a number of public displays that are spectacular."

Still, many Marylanders choose to host their own makeshift shows. While most will escape citations and other penalties because of the difficulty enforcing fireworks laws, many will not escape unscathed. According to a May 2008 report by the National Fire Protection Association, nearly all of the more than 9,000 yearly fireworks injuries occur at illegal private displays.

What's more, it doesn't take a lot of fire-power to cause injuries. According to the report, 21 percent of fireworks injuries in the month surrounding July 4, 2006, were caused by sparklers.

And according to Dr. Dean Fiergang, a pediatric ophthalmologist and Maryland Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons executive board member, about 50 percent of fireworks-related eye injuries among toddlers are caused by hand-held sparklers. Yesterday, Dr. Fiergang cautioned parents against giving their children fireworks, no matter how innocuous they seem.

"A parent would never hand a child a match," he said.

Protecting children from fireworks injuries was a theme yesterday among all those in attendance. According to the NFPA's report on 2006 fireworks injuries, one-third involved children younger than 15.

"I think the thing that deserves emphasis is who gets hurt," said Baltimore County Fire Chief John J. Hohman. "From a parent's standpoint, and from a fire chief's standpoint, the emphasis should be on knowing what your kids are doing."


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