National Campaign for Firework Safety

Campaign History


The National Campaign for Firework Safety was founded in November 1969, by a number of people appalled by the unnecessary firework injuries to children, teenagers and pets.  2,200 injuries were caused in the 1968 'season'.

The Campaign initiated a 50,000-signature petition, organised by 'Mother Magazine'.  The Campaign, strengthened by the successful petition, met with MPs at the House of Commons, together with members of the House of Lords.  A working group of MP's and Lords came together with the campaign's committee led by Noel Tobin our Director and James Johnson MP (Kingston upon Hull) our President to carry forward the aims of our Campaign.  This group became known later as the 'Fish and Fireworks' group of MPs because of the fishing constituency.
 
In 1969 fireworks were controlled by the 1875 Explosives Act.  This Act primarily dealt with the handling of explosives in quarries and mines.  Fireworks were added, at a later date in Sections 23 and 31. Also in 1969, the BBC made a powerful documentary film on fireworks called 'Remember, Remember'.  It was to be updated in 1973.

The Campaign then met with Home Secretary, James Callaghan, and his deputy, Merlyn Rees, resulting in the proposal that the permissible purchasing age would be raised from 13 years to 16.  That change was lost with the incoming Conservative Government of 1970.  Labour won the next election four years later and the Campaign lobbied the government. The result was a consultative firework review, set up by the DTI.  It recommended stronger legislation.  Most safety organisations agreed with the Campaign's proposals that
a) There should be a National Training Scheme for firework display  operators,
b) And all displays should be licensed.

The Firework Companies, put up their usual response which was to object to any change in the regulations.  They spoke about the dangerous "black market" situation developing if everybody could not purchase fireworks The also said that they would have to sack their workforce a part time industry, if fireworks were restricted to displays.  The Government sat on the fence, and pondered.

A Bill was introduced in 1976, changing only 2 words of the 1875 Explosives Act, with regard to fireworks.  The age for purchasing fireworks was raised from 13 years old to 16 and the fine for throwing fireworks in the streets or selling to young people under age, 20 became 200.

The Campaign had its first victory; it learned a lot of lessons, and made a lot of friends.  The one line Bill was accompanied by a package of voluntary measures agreed with the firework trade.  These included restricting the period when fireworks could go on sale to three weeks before and a few days after November 5.  The power of the Banger was reduced for the umpteenth time,  as this caused the highest number of injuries.  The industry refused to cease manufacture of them, as this was their most profitable firework.

A wise lesson, the Campaign learned, was about loopholes.  The 1976 law prohibiting the sale of fireworks to under 16s was flouted just the same as it had with 13 years olds, because the word 'apparently' was used when applying the age.  Retailers, when caught, said they thought the young person was
not 'apparently under the age of 16...'

In the early 1970s, our Campaign came to the attention of the Local Authorities regarding the need for properly organised firework displays as a safer alternative to back garden parties.  It was hoped youngsters would go to the displays and not cause nuisance in the streets.  The GLC Parks department agreed to give all suitable sites, under their control, for displays.  Most other Borough and District Councils agreed it was time for Community firework Displays.  The Campaign was instrumental in beginning the trend of yearly-organised firework displays.

In 1973, the Campaign was asked by a Local Authority because of its expertise, to produce a code of conduct for organised firework displays.  The code, the first of its kind, was tried and tested that year. The Home Office, satisfied the Campaign's code was effective, invited us, in collaboration with others,  to draft a national document called, 'How to put on a Firework Display Safely'.

It was in the mid 1970s the Campaign began looking at the legislative situation in the rest of the world.  After extensive research we published in 1978 the International Firework Report.  This was the first report of its kind casting a probing eye on the International Firework scene.  Of the 19 countries surveyed all firework injuries had fallen following legislation controlling the manufacture and use of fireworks.  Training was a key factor.  In the United States the regulations were even tougher because, there were federal, as well as State laws.  Research showed Canada had the best method of licensing and training.   

It was in the 1980s, Standard Fireworks Ltd accepted the Campaign's advice and they went to Canada and were amazed by what they saw.  Standard Fireworks then attempted to emulate this scheme, to their credit, but it came to nothing when the Government refused to match funds.

By 1987, the Liverpool Trading Standards Officers had enough of a bad law and voluntary measures which were not working.  They decided to send their own children into shops that were flagrantly breaking the law, and this brought about prosecutions.  The Consumer Affairs Minister at that time thought this was a good idea and he sought to encourage other Local Authorities TSO's to do the same.  Whilst most LA's agreed with the 'Liverpool' solution they felt it was up to the Minister to introduce proper legislation. 

The Campaign has been backed consistently by the Local Authorities, who have through LACODS, their representative body, asked the Government, of the day, to introduce proper legislation on fireworks.

TV Opinion Polls in 1988, by BBC Southampton, showed a massive 79% support for the Campaign, and the following year, 1989, TV South West confirmed our Campaign gathering momentum by increasing the support to a staggering 87%.

The Campaign's success continued as the annual firework injuries fell from a high of 2,200 in 1968, to an all time low of 555 in 1979.  The Thatcher years followed.  The figures rose and then in 1988 tragedy struck, 3 children died, the first for 16 years. 

In 1989, the Campaign had another success when a British Standard on Fireworks BS7114 was introduced.  The British Standard which should have been a landmark on safety standards but failed, because of de-regulation.  The Firework Industry was allowed to import fireworks, from the Far East.  Vast quantities of these do not conform to BS7114.  This is illegal.

BS7114, placed fireworks into four separate categories, based on their intended use:

Category 1: Fireworks suitable for use inside domestic buildings.

  • These fireworks should not cause injury to people standing 1 metre or more away, and should not cause damage to property.

Category 2: Fireworks suitable for outdoor use in relatively confined areas. 
These fireworks should not cause injury to people standing
5 metres or more away.  The fuse fitted to the fireworks should enable the person lighting the fireworks to retire to a distance of at least 5 metres.

Category 3: Fireworks suitable for outdoor use in large open areas.
  • These fireworks should not cause injury to people standing 25 metres or more away.

Fireworks which are incomplete and/or which are not intended for sale to the general public are classified as Category 4.  A reference to any part of BS7114 should not be marked on or in relation to a category 4 firework.
Any firework
not conforming categories 1, 2, and 3 will be classified as a category 4 firework.  It is recommended that the fireworks be marked with the warning,
  • "THIS DEVICE MUST NOT BE SOLD TO, OR USED BY, A MEMBER OF THE GENERAL PUBLIC"

In the 1990s the Conservative Government de-regulated the firework industry and abolished the import license.  The Campaign warned the government of this retrograde step, and were regrettably proved right when there followed a steep rise in firework injuries.  There were two fatalities in 1993 when injuries broke through the 1000 barrier for the first time in 20 years.  In 1995, they continued upwards by another 50% to 1574, the biggest increase for 25 years.

The DTI and the Firework Industry were also learning, you cannot de-regulate explosives, it leads to disaster.

The Campaign had predicted the problem at de-regulation, and again was regrettably proved right.  Very powerful fireworks were being sold directly to the public.  Category 3 fireworks are designed not to cause injury to anyone standing at least 25 metres away; very few gardens now are 25 metres long.  Category 4 fireworks are for the serious professional, who can control the power, as many things need to be taken into consideration other than 'touch blue paper and retire'.  It is these powerful fireworks selling for fifty and seventy-five pounds each, that were being sold to the general public for use in their small gardens.

During the 1970s and 1980s the Campaign repeatedly offered to work with the firework industry, because of the annual toll of firework injuries which is equally shameful to the Firework Industry, as it is to the Campaign, where every injury signifies a failure.  But a former director of Standard Fireworks, then the largest firework company as well as being spokesman for the industry, said it suited them to be confrontational in the situation.  "It was good for sales".  Later the company came under another group and their attitude changed to co-operation.  Their spokesman provided the campaign with a lot of helpful information for a 10-year period. Since he has retired and the company has changed hands we are back to square one again. 

In 1996, the Government announced a review of the firework laws.  This followed two years, 1993 and 1996, when people were killed by fireworks, two children in 1993, and two men organising firework displays in 1996.   Both men were thought to be proficient in the use of fireworks, unfortunately neither had any professional training. 

In response to the tragic deaths the Government, in December 1996, brought in a temporary ban on Aerial Shells, and Aerial Maroons.  In January 1997,  the Minister for Consumer Affairs admitted he could not face the New Year with the possibility of more fatalities.

In May 1997, the Labour Government took Office and Nigel Griffiths MP became Minister for Consumer Affairs. The Campaign had worked closely with Mr Griffiths in opposition and he immediately carried out some of the Campaigns objectives.  Under the Consumer Protection Act he raised the age for purchasing fireworks from 16 to 18.  He banned bangers, the highest injury small firework this century.  He also got rid of some rockets and 'Flyabout fireworks' which under the 'voluntary agreement' between the trade in 1976, were considered too dangerous for the general public, but the Firework Industry allowed them to be retailed in this country.  He carried out his review of firework laws, the second in a year.  Under pressure from the Campaign, there was a debate in the House of Commons.

In 1997 a backbench MP won the ballot for a Private Members Bill. She chose to present a Fireworks Bill. The Bill would introduce licensing of display fireworks and set up a National Training Scheme for operators.  It would also deal with the illegal imports of fireworks, and set a time limit on when fireworks would be sold.  It was the first important Fireworks Bill since 1875.  The Campaign supported this Bill and persuaded all its supporting organisations to do likewise.

Because the Bill was supported by Government and Front Bench Opposition Parties, it almost reached the Statute Book.  It is almost unprecedented that a Private Members Bill should become law, but such was the strength of feeling, that the Bill almost made it.  A well-known conservative 'spoiler' and his cronies decided to halt the Bill, and by using a tactic called a 'filibuster' they caused the Bill to fail.  All sides of the political divide, as well as serious professionals in the Firework Industry welcomed the Bill and were unanimous in their condemnation of the actions of a few 'rogue' conservative MP's .

The Campaign's HQ was inundated with letters from the general public, saddened by the loss of the Bill, because they knew the misery would go on.  Although firework injuries are reducing, thanks to the Campaign's continuing efforts, the noise and nuisance problem is not.  Letters about fireworks have increased a thousand fold because of trauma to animals, to the elderly, and to people with nervous conditions.  This situation has been made worse by the advent of bigger, category 4 fireworks.  Injuries apart, the noise and nuisance factors are cause for extreme concern.

The Campaign will continue to voice its concerns of the Firework Industry, the incident at Enschede shows tragically, how dangerous fireworks can be.  The Campaign will support any move to bring in new legislation to ensure fireworks, in the twenty-first century, will be handled much safer than in the previous century.

Membership of the campaign costs 9.00, Concessions 5.00, School Students free.  We ask for your generous support through Donations, Direct Debits, and Legacies when possible.  All voluntary organisations are meeting a difficult time financially at the moment, and the National Campaign for Firework Safety is no exception.

We operate a public service and Helpline 12 months of the year, and a 24 hour service for the week leading up to November 5.

NOEL TOBIN -DIRECTOR


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