Rapid response: LA fireworks explosion is a sober reminder of the associated risks
Unexpected events remind us that what makes fireworks fun also makes them dangerous
By David Buck, Spl/Sgt. Bomb Technician (Ret.).
On June 30, a large cache of fireworks exploded during emergency response operations in Los Angeles, flipping and damaging cars, smashing windows in homes and injuring 17 people including police officers.
Why it's important
Unexpected events remind us that what makes fireworks fun also makes them dangerous: explosions are violent events capable of causing property damage and/or personal injury including death. Whether a small device functions in the hand of a person who misjudged fuse burn time or large quantities explode during render safe or transfer operations, the effects can be devastating.
Fireworks and their associated explosive powders have also been misused intentionally, most notably the Boston bombings in April 2013 and terror attacks on the island of Bali, Indonesia in October 2002.
These reactions which we know as explosions are extremely rapid releases of chemical energy that produce light, heat and expanding gases that generate extremely significant overpressures. These pressures alone can cause property damage and personal injury or death and they also propel at great speeds fragments of their ruptured containers (cardboard, plastic, steel, etc.) and any objects that are nearby (sand and gravel for instance) or attached as added frag (nails, ball bearings, etc.).
The explosives used in fireworks include black powder, which has been in use on battlefields and in mining operations for many hundreds of years and flash powders, which have different historical applications throughout a shorter and more recent history. Both are sensitive to initiation through heat, shock, friction, impact and electrostatic discharge. They are currently made commercially as legitimate products and also illegally for personal use or sale. But ultimately it doesn’t matter much whether they are manufactured in a regulated industry or in someone’s basement – they all deserve our greatest respect and due caution. And even still, things can go south fast.
Officers may encounter dangerous illegal fireworks while in transport, in backyards during a family or neighborhood show, or in a garage or house during storage or illicit manufacture. Even when dealing with small quantities, it is imperative that officers know what to do when taking action to protect public safety and enforce the laws of their jurisdiction.
First is the rule of doing no harm. Do not handle or expose to heat, shock, friction, impact, or electrostatic discharge. Understand that loose powders on the floor, covering shells, or on the outside of storage boxes create an extreme hazard. Leave everything alone and secure the immediate area. Some improvised powders are so sensitive that they react even to the lightest touch and some will react when they come in contact with other chemicals.
Contact trained professionals in your area and describe what you have. Request their response, secure a broader area, and commit to waiting for their arrival. Discuss the potential need for more extended evacuation and begin those operations while you wait, if so advised. Trusted professionals will include the ATF and/or state, local, county, or federal agency bomb technicians. They, in turn, may seek the support of explosives chemists with the ATF or FBI.
Request on scene fire support.
Advise and involve your agency command. Realize that they may minimize the perceived dangers, challenge your actions, and/or express a lack of interest in responding to the scene.
Involve your local prosecutor. The ATF may consult with the local U.S. Attorney to discuss possible federal charges.
Assign the task of researching potential disposal sites.
Assist with the development of an action plan and support the operation as best you can.
Note: This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of recommendations.
Seek out any training you can find in the future. Many agencies offer good information-based training, including the ATF, the Institute of Makers of Explosives (IME), the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Many law enforcement officers have had experiences with illegal fireworks as kids that form the basis of their current attitudes. Those with bad experiences likely respect them today. Those who were lucky may dismiss rational concerns.
If we learn from the experience of others as well as our own, however, all of us will respect the dangers associated with fireworks both commercial and improvised.
Thousands of pounds of these materials inside a home in a densely packed neighborhood is an absolute nightmare scenario for first responders. Much respect for those doing this kind of work.
About the author
David Buck is a retired public safety bomb technician who now works in corporate security, as a trainer and consultant with HazardID.com, and as a copyeditor for The Detonator.