For obvious reasons, Bonfire Night is an event that’s an important one on the Fire Service calendar, as the risks to the public (and the challenges to the fire service on bonfire night) significantly increase.
NHS A&E services attended over 4000 firework injuries in 2018, and according to the UK Fire Service over the past five years over 350 pre-school children have been treated in hospital for fireworks injuries.
It’s a celebration that the majority of the public enjoy and look forward to each year. But just where do the biggest risks lie?
Private bonfire parties
The UK Fire Service urge the public to attend organised and risk-assessed events, but year after year individuals continue to hold their own firework displays in their gardens.
This doesn’t mean that it can’t be done safely – as long as all potential risks are assessed and the adults involved are aware of the correct way to handle and set off fireworks.
However the fact remains that many members of the public disregard the advice provided every year by the UK Fire Service and other institutions, and behave recklessly. It only takes seconds for something to go wrong, whether that’s a firework veering off in an unexpected direction or a private bonfire getting that little bit out of control.
Irresponsible and dangerous behaviour
London Firefighter David Waterman wrote an article for the Fire Brigades Union site in 2016 which is just as relevant three years on.
A couple of years ago I remember standing in the wreckage of a bedroom having just extinguished a fire that was started by an errant firework that found its way through an open window. Caught up in the net curtain, it continued to burn, eventually setting fire to the whole room. The blaze rendered the flat uninhabitable and left the family homeless until well into the following year.
Unfortunately people throwing fireworks in the street isn’t an uncommon occurrence. From people not realising the seriousness and potential dangers of what they’re doing, to underage youngsters having illicit fireworks they don’t know how to use properly, to people being downright malicious and engaging in criminal behaviour – the list goes on. And with the increase of bonfire night parties where alcohol is involved, the evening can turn to disaster in an instant.
The setting of fires ‘for fun’ is a UK wide issue. Deliberate fires over the bonfire night period in 2018 resulted in Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) firefighters being deployed almost 400 times a week. They responded to over 1000 incidents in the four weeks leading up to November 5th, when fire appliances were mobilised almost 1,500 times.
Crews responded to over 300 fires on November 5th – with Operations Control receiving over 700 phone calls from the public.
West Yorkshire FRS last year alone had almost 400 emergency calls to their Control Room over the course of the evening, responding to over 160 secondary fires on Bonfire Night (grass or rubbish fires), almost 70 of which were the result of out of control bonfires.
It just takes a little thing like a gust of wind in the wrong direction, and suddenly it’s chaos and things are out of control. People don’t think it’ll happen to them. Quite often they panic and don’t know what to do, which allows the fire to spread even more.
With unregulated bonfires there’s often no way for the fire service to know what’s actually being burnt – if someone has put an aerosol can or gas canister on the pile (yes, it does happen!) it could literally be a ticking time bomb.
The firefighter job is a tough one at the best of times, but the challenges to the fire service on bonfire night (and in the run up to the occasion) mean that it’s an event dreaded by many firefighters!
Every year the Fire Service recommends that people should only attend official, organised bonfire night events and to follow the Firework Code – and many people will follow these guidelines. However there will, unfortunately, always be a few who think they know better, or worse, don’t care about the potential dangers.