Pyrofire sales worry Capital Region firefighters

The name “Pyrofire” sounds dangerous.
Bill Sims lights a TNT sparkler, bought in Schenectady County, at Niskayuna Fire Department District 1 on Thursday.
Bill Sims lights a TNT sparkler, bought in Schenectady County, at Niskayuna Fire Department District 1 on Thursday.

The name “Pyrofire” sounds dangerous.

The 9-inch-tall cylinder looks tough, too. The paper container of flammable powders is illustrated with a fire-breathing dragon and lightning streaks.

But the dragon is not such a menace. “Pyrofire” is one of the low-potency fireworks now legal for purchase in Schenectady County, and spits a three-foot-tall barrage of crackling golden sparks. It’s about 50 seconds from fuse to fizzle.

That’s one minute too long for assistant chief Michael Gillespie of the Schenectady Fire Department. Gillespie and other fire safety professionals disagree with New York state’s decision to allow the sale of sparklers, fountains, caps and similar small pyrotechnics between June 1 and July 5 each year, and for a week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The state allowed counties to permit or forbid sales; people interested in selling the fireworks had to apply for a sales certificate through the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control.

According to state police, 31 counties — out of the state’s 62 — have allowed sales. In the greater Capital Region, Schenectady, Saratoga, Fulton, Montgomery, Rensselaer and Greene have permitted sales; farther north, Warren and Essex counties are also in. Albany and Schoharie counties have refused.

In New York, only people 18 and over can make fireworks purchases.

With the July 4 weekend approaching, more fireworks than usual now will be part of backyard celebrations. While spark fountains are products that do not shoot projectiles into the air or sound off with loud reports, firefighters are against anything sold for recreation that comes with a fuse.

“Any time we’re dealing with fireworks, our concerns are the potential for personal injury, the potential for accidental fires, the deliberate misuse of the product and just the overall safety and well-being of the community,” Gillespie, the Schenectady fire chief, said.

Fireworks are being sold at department, grocery and drugs stores and temporary tents — a total of 36 locations in Schenectady County. The Gazette purchased a 43-count “TNT” brand “Blast Zone” assortment for $29.97 at Walmart in Glenville. Included in the two-foot tall package were four 9-inch tall cylindrical-shaped fireworks with names like “Global Lights” “1-2-3 Go” and “Blazing Rebel.” Spark shows also were promised in the smaller “Color Shock,” “Tripping Daisies” and box-shaped “Radiant.”

Colorful labels on the fountains resemble labels used on more potent fireworks sold in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states where fireworks are legal.

Test firings

Last Thursday, firefighters from Niskayuna Fire District No. 1 ignited some of the Gazette-purchased fireworks in the department’s spacious River Road station parking lot. Both newspaper representatives and firefighters wanted to see what people are buying.

Several pieces, like “Pyrofire” and “Blazing Rebel,” started with small reddish flames and erupted with small red, green and white fireballs. There were crackling pops — loud enough to panic pets — and in one case, a shrill whistle. The biggest piece in the box, “Radiant,” lasted 80 seconds.

Fire Chief Dale Lingenfelter wanted to see what would happen if one of the fireworks fired on its side — simulating a tip-over. Would the piece spin out of control, firing crackles toward people watching? It did not; the fallen piece did not roll or move.

“That’s a good thing,” Lingenfelter said. “There’s not that much force coming out of them.”

Lingenfelter also noticed spent pieces were still warm, several minutes after crackles and sparks had ended. Smoldering embers, he said, could last for a significant amount of time.

“They’re pretty much what I expected to see,” Lingenfelter said. “If you don’t handle them safely, you’re going to get into trouble or get somebody hurt.”

Safety advice

Firefighters said they would soak the spent pieces in water, after they had cooled for at least 30 minutes. Lingenfelter added if people set off the fireworks, they should do so in an open area, away from buildings, and have a water supply ready for quick dousings. And keep small children far away from the firing areas.

Gillespie is concerned with the ways people may handle the fountains and sparklers.

“They may not separate these fireworks proper distances,” he said. “They could wind up setting one off which ignites other fireworks simultaneously, which is causing a much bigger problem and a greater safety and fire hazard than one product by itself. We’ve seen professionals using fireworks where they’ve misfired or multiple fireworks go off simultaneously that weren’t supposed to.”

The medical community sides with firefighters. Doctors oppose all spark-and-smoke fireworks, pieces that now have joined cherry bombs, sky rockets and Roman candles on their enemy lists.

“There really is no safe firework,” said John Janikas, director of emergency services for Albany Memorial Hospital, and Samaritan Hospital in Troy, in a press release. “Just because you can purchase sparklers at the local grocery store doesn’t mean that they are not potentially dangerous for adults and children. Sparklers can burn at temperatures of about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit — hot enough to melt some metals. They can also catch on your clothing, hair and even spark a fire in your home.”

A fire that heavily damaged a house earlier this month in the Washington County town of Kingsbury was blamed on improperly disposed fireworks that had been purchased locally.

Storage concerns

Gerald R. DeLuca, executive director and chief executive officer of the East Schodack-based New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, is chiefly concerned with commercial storage of fireworks.

“They’re primarily going to be sold in small shops, stored with all kinds of flammable materials such as paper products, paper towels, motor oil, you name it,” DeLuca said. “Because there’s only a short period of time they can be sold, it presents a significantly increased fire load if the fire were to happen in that shop.”

DeLuca said the association tried to persuade counties to vote against fireworks legislation. In some places, they succeeded.

“In the areas where we had the fire chiefs go directly to the counties, we had more success, when the local chiefs expressed their concerns,” DeLuca said. “Where they did not get out to talk to their county legislatures, the fireworks industry carried the day.”

The association has stopped sales of what members considered hazardous fire materials in the past.

“We fought like the devil to get novelty lighters out, prohibit their sales, because they ended up in the hands of children,” DeLuca said. “Now, we’re going to have a hot sparkler that could get stuffed down a couch. It could be put on a carpet, it could get stuck in the woods someplace. Right now, it’s not very dry, but a couple weeks ago when we had that extremely dry weather, it would have ignited a forest fire.”

Revenue vs. Risk?

DeLuca wondered if some counties, expecting bonus sales tax revenue, have considered the risks.

“There’s a very limited time for the sales, so I cannot imagine the sales tax is going to be significant to any single county,” he said. “Four percent of those sales is not a lot of money.”

Schenectady County’s vote to allow the sale and use of fireworks was not controversial. “We introduced it as a local law back in April, there was a public hearing in May, two people spoke, both in favor,” said Joseph McQueen, a spokesman for Schenectady County. “There was minimal debate and then it was approved (on May 20).”

Potential revenue benefits were not discussed in public. “It was never brought up once in the discussion, about the revenue,” McQueen said.

Nancy Blogin, executive director of the National Fireworks Association in Kansas City, Missouri, wants to see consumer fireworks legal in every state. All fireworks currently are illegal in Massachusetts, Delaware and New Jersey.

Blogin, who owns a fireworks store herself, had no information about how much fireworks manufacturers stand to profit by their summer and winter sales windows in New York. But she said New York is at least keeping many fireworks fans shopping at home.

“People are going to buy fireworks, that has been a proven fact,” she said. “They’re going to buy them somewhere. The city may as well benefit for the revenue and keep that money in the city.”

State Trooper Mark Cepiel said people should remember that while they may be able to buy fireworks in one county, they may be breaking the law if they light pieces in a county that has prohibited their use.

“We hope folks are safe in how they do this,” said Cepiel, public information officer for Troop G. “There are a ton of safety tips all over the Internet and the items themselves will have a safety warning on them. Take the time to read about safe usage and utilize the product as its intended.”

Sometimes, people don’t take the time. That’s why Mike Gillespie dislikes fireworks.

“The first year I was on the job, I responded to a call as a paramedic,” he said. “A gentleman got up in the morning and lit what he thought was a candle. It turned out to be an M-80 and did enough damage to his hand that they had to amputate it.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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