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Fireworks Mishaps: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

By MS. BRITTANY OLSON, Staff Writer

“I never would have imagined that I would be rushed off to the hospital, be injected with morphine, wondering if I would ever be able to use my hands again,” explained SSgt Aaron Youngblood, 6th Medical Group NCO. His New Year’s Eve celebration on MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida began with the typical barbeque with friends, and lighting of fireworks. It was his turn to set off two tube mortar-style fireworks. After lighting the fuses, Youngblood took precaution and walked back behind the designated safety zone. He waited 45 seconds before approaching what he assumed was a dud. The supposed dud backfired, exploding out of the bottom just as he bent down to inspect the device. Bewildered by what had just happened, he looked down to find both hands severely shredded. “My entire hand was covered in blood; the muscles and tendons surrounding my right thumb were completely blown out, and I broke the ring and pinky finger on my left hand all the way down to my wrist.” Four months, three surgeries, and over 100 hours of physical therapy later, Youngblood was finally able to return to work and resume his normal lifestyle.

“I thought that I had done everything right. Not until after the accident had I realized that I should have had a bucket of water ready to put out a fire or to pour on unexploded fireworks. Next time, I will leave it to the professionals and probably just go watch a show,” affirmed Youngblood.

Military personnel are born with red, white, and blue flowing through their veins. Thus, it is understandable that they take celebrating America’s independence very seriously. What is the Fourth of July without setting off your very own fireworks? Nearly every town and city in America has its own firework display, but it just does not offer the same experience for the self-proclaimed pyrotechnicians or those with a “hands-on” mentality and a desire to be up close and personal with sparks and smoke from the explosives.

The intent of this article is not to condemn the use of fireworks altogether. However, we ask that you think twice before committing to your family and friends to give the best Fourth of July firework display the world has ever seen. It will save you time, money, a misdemeanor coupled with a city fine, and a potential trip to the hospital. If you are still determined to play with colorful explosives, please be safe and implement best practices for handling and lighting even the smallest pyrotechnic devices.

According to the National Fire Protection Organization, over 50,000 fires in America are directly caused by fireworks each year. The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) 2017 Fireworks Annual Report disclosed that in just one year, nonoccupational fireworks were responsible for eight related casualties and approximately 12,900 injuries that resulted in a visit to hospital emergency departments. Of the eight victims, seven individuals died from direct impact by fireworks, and one victim was killed in a house fire started by a firecracker. The CPSC report concluded that the majority of nonoccupational fireworks-related injuries were caused by explosive mishandling and malfunctions.

Of the 12,900 injuries and eight deaths reported in 2017, mishandling of the explosives included setting off fireworks while holding the devices; throwing fireworks towards people; dismantling explosives; igniting fireworks in close proximity to someone; igniting used fireworks; and placing explosives too close to a heat source. The majority of malfunctions included fireworks tipping over; rogue explosives with errant flight paths; debris; fireworks exploding inside the tube; and backfire.

An incident similar to Youngblood’s occurred on the Fourth of July in 2018 at McConnell AFB, KS. A member of the 22d Aircraft Maintenance Squadron used a handheld lighter to light an unauthorized commercial firework, which sadly left the individual maimed and permanently blind.

“You hope that a mishap like this does not come in because usually when fireworks are involved, it is a serious injury. Mishaps can range from burns to blowing a finger off, last year’s mishap is the worst that I have seen since it involved the individual losing his eyesight,” explained SSgt Cody Gerlach, 22d Air Refueling Wing Occupational Safety Technician.

Before handling or lighting fireworks, the McConnell Safety Office highly recommends that you follow the manufacturer safety guidelines, wear protective gear including safety goggles, only light fireworks you are familiar with, and implement risk management procedures.

As the firework-related accidents reported by MacDill and McConnell Air Force Bases demonstrate, these explosives have minds of their own and severely injure and claim the lives of Americans each year, including our country’s highly skilled Airmen. Handling fireworks without any safety equipment is the equivalent of a seasoned firefighter running into a burning building without his bunker gear. Please do not underestimate the power behind even the smallest pyrotechnic device and always be prepared for something to go wrong.

For safety tips and best practices on handling fireworks, visit the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Fireworks Information Center webpage at https://www.cpsc.gov/Safety-Education/Safety-Education-Centers/Fireworks/