Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fireworks: Good & Bad

There are few things that can draw a good crowd like a fireworks show. People stare in wonder at the exploding  rockets, which are often arranged to go off in patterns of colors beautiful to the eye. A lot of our local culture does have fireworks in its history, especially among the Chinese-American community, whose ancestors invented fireworks and gunpowder.

July 4th and New Year's Day would seem incomplete without a pyrotechnic display of grand scale and awesome visual effects.

However, all is not perfect in fireworks and it is the imperfections that have drawn criticism and calls for an outright ban. While there has been much talk of banning fireworks for all but displays put together by professionals, they have usually failed because of the Culture Card being played to great effect, as well as complaints from vendors who fear that their incomes would suffer if they were not allowed to sell them to private individuals.

While fireworks have their upside, their downside is very serious and cannot be overlooked.

First, you have the very real danger of fires. Every year, a building is engulfed in flames because of fireworks that have gotten onto their roof and started a fire which soon got out of control. People have been rendered homeless because somebody couldn't control their fireworks and this is a steep price to pay to have a little fun. As far as finding the people responsible, with literally thousands of rockets flying around, each packed with a small amount of explosives, you won't be able to keep track of all of them and one will eventually get loose and onto some one's house. So, finding the persons responsible can often be impossible.

Second, you have the danger of personal injury due to explosions and burns. Fireworks are made to burn and/or explode and children are most susceptible to injury when they get scared and either forget to let go of it or one falls in front of them or on them. We can be talking about  first-, second- or third-degree burns, along with the accompanying pain and scarring, especially from 2nd and 3rd degree burns. Being burned can even lead to psychological problems for the victim, especially if the injuries sustained are particularly bad.

Next, you have the smoke which can be very heavy if there had been a lot of fireworks going-off in the area. I remember one year, I was in Kalihi and I was on my way home at around 3am. It was New Year's Day and as I looked down the road, I realized that I could not see the end of the street due to the heavy low-hanging smoke. I had a motorscooter back then and I had to ride at less than 15mph to avoid accidentally hitting some one in the darkness and smoke. Fortunately, I could still see the traffic lights and would have an idea of where to stop.  Riding was especially difficult due to visibility problems, which were compounded by the acridity of the smoke which irritated my eyes, nose and throat. My eyes were tearing-up and I was fortunate to make it home, as other drivers were doubtless similarly affected. 

Also, you have to include the risks to people with breathing problems such as asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer. With many children today afflicted with asthma, it is difficult for all but the most devoted of fireworks fans to justify using them in the face of the suffering inflicted upon these people who must endure hours or even days of breathing problem above what they do on a normal day. A civilized society must always consider the needs of its weakest members.

Let's not forget the fact that in areas where a lot of fireworks are going to be set-off, animals in zoos have to be tranquilized so that they won't panic and suffer from the stresses caused by hearing thousands of explosions and the smell of smoke in the air. Animals have a natural fear of flame and smoke and their first instinct is to run away from it.

Of course, there are always going to be those who use fireworks as a convenient way to hurt people and damage property. Petty arsonists can use them as a way to burn down a building and subsequently chalk it up as an accident, even though they had done it purposely. When I was a young man, an entire building at my school, Kalakaua Intermediate, was burned to the ground by vandals using fireworks. Furthermore, some can use the particularly powerful ones to blowout windows on cars and homes or even cause injury to others. I remember going through Waikiki one year and a gang of kids was enjoying themselves while throwing strings of fireworks onto passing vehicles. In these cases, fireworks are not seen as a means of enjoyment, but as an easy way to damage the property or injure the persons of others.

We certainly can't leave out the danger of improperly-stored fireworks which can go off accidentally, due to a house fire or similar occurrence. Some years ago, there was talk of limiting the number of fireworks people could buy at a time. So, before this went into effect, people stocked-up on fireworks with the intention of using some of them for the upcoming holiday and store the rest for later. After the limits were put in-place, there was a house fire where a large number of improperly-stored fireworks went-off in some one's home storage shed. What people in that case failed to realize is that fireworks, at their most basic level, are miniature explosives and should be handled  and stored that way. A small fire or even a spark could result in catastrophic consequences.

Finally, you have the mess that fireworks leave behind. This mess can be considerable and is often left for others to do, while the people who had set them off ignore the problem entirely I have seen entire streets covered with the leftover red paper debris of firecrackers, which were simply left for the wind and the rain to remove, while the people who had set them off simply walked past the debris piles as if they weren't there.

By themselves, fireworks are neither good nor bad. They simply are what they are. The problems arise when people who are not trained in handling them properly do stupid, careless or malicious things that result in property being damaged and people getting hurt.

I'm all in favor of having fireworks displays for events like Chinese New Year, New Year's Day and the Fourth of July. But, I think these displays should be entrusted to professionals, rather than to any schmoe with a few dollars and the urge to blow-up something.

Duane D. Browning
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