Bang! Be careful with those fireworks

  • Article by: ALEX EBERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2009 - 5:30 PM

As police lament the dangers and hassles of fireworks, fans say they're perfectly safe when used in the presence of common sense.

A small figure dressed in pink pants and a lime green shirt bent over the lit firework, as if to make sure it was working.

Bang!

Searing heat and light leapt from the cardboard fountain and torched the mannequin -- a stand-in for a toddler in a demonstration Thursday in St. Paul about the deadliness of fireworks.

Every year the Minnesota Department of Public Safety finds creative ways to stress the dire consequences of mishandling fireworks.

But whether they blow up a car with a trunk full of fireworks or explode a watermelon with an M-80, it still happens: More people are injured by fireworks every year, and police departments are strapped to respond to the hundreds of fireworks calls over the July 4th weekend.

St. Paul police Sgt. Paul Schnell said his department is swamped with fireworks emergency calls every Independence Day weekend.

"These calls draw safety officials away from activities that otherwise might serve the public good," he said. "Pending fireworks calls have gotten as high as 600."

The St. Paul police department has several units assigned to fireworks detail on the 4th.

"It becomes an immense challenge, and there is no easy way for us to control it," he said. "It's like trying to put out a skyscraper fire with a garden hose."

Since 2002, when a new law allowed for the sale and use of some fireworks in Minnesota, annual injuries due to fireworks have doubled, according to Dr. Douglas Brunette, Hennepin County Medical Center medical director.

Illegal fireworks include anything that explodes or flies, but even the legal ones are dangerous, and nearly one-third of injuries occur to teenage boys, who can't legally buy fireworks.

"On a personal level, it's very difficult to take care of these patients," said Brunette, who has worked in the center's emergency rooms for 27 years. "Many of them are young children. [The injuries] can result in permanent disabilities and permanent disfigurement."

In defense of fireworks

In St. Paul on Thursday, customers jammed into PyroTech, a small auto body garage-turned-fireworks store. Owners Michael Ditmer and Lisa Proechel, who have rented the small garage every year around July 4th since 2002, say there is no reason fireworks can't be completely safe.

"People can hurt themselves with a can opener," Ditmer said. "And they can hurt themselves with fireworks too, if they're not using their common sense."

To help people utilize their common sense, Ditmer and Proechel give all of their customers punks -- long sticks with which to light their fireworks instead of lighters, and they don't sell anything that flies or explodes.

"If you're being careful with lighting it and stepping back, you should be OK," Proechel said.

Stephen Mohn, a customer who was grabbing the biggest fireworks off of PyroTech's plastic tables and shelves, said that in more than 40 years of lighting and setting off fireworks, he hasn't been hurt, even though he would sometimes blow up TNT and other illegal fireworks with his uncle.

"That was dynamite and blasting caps on a farm," Mohn said.

When he lights fireworks, he uses safety glasses and hoses down his driveway as extra precautions. And because he practices safe celebrating, he doesn't see why he can't purchase what he calls "the good stuff."

"Bazookas are made to destroy things, fireworks are made to celebrate," Mohn said. "Why can't we have a real 4th of July?"

Alex Ebert • 612-673-4264

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