In a 10-day period around the Fourth of July, Connecticut will have 67 large-scale public fireworks displays, launching showers of fiery explosives into the sky to celebrate the nation’s 237th birthday.
Despite the huge scale of a public fireworks show like those hosted by cities and towns, injury statistics suggest that big public displays are far safer than neighbors in a backyard with fireworks — even sparklers — bought at a store.
Last year, public fireworks displays accounted for only 2 percent of fireworks-related injuries in the U.S. compared, with 12 percent caused by sparklers, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s 2012 fireworks annual report released in June.
Connecticut law doesn’t allow the sale or possession of fireworks except sparklers, fountains and novelties.
If you have anything bigger — illegal fireworks bought in another state, for example — you probably are not covered by your homeowner’s insurance policy if you cause property damage, injure or kill someone as a result.
Even the types of fireworks legal in this state, however, accounted for one-third of fireworks-related emergency room visits nationally in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, according to a report released last month by the National Fire Protection Association.
“Probably the safest option as people head into the July 4th holiday is to attend a fireworks show that’s put on by professional pyrotechnicians, but if you are going to set off fireworks, it’s important to use common sense,” said Chris Hackett, director of personal lines policy for the trade group Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.
“Of course it’s important to keep your eyes on the kids who may be watching,” Hackett said.
Of all fireworks injuries across the nation, 44 percent of people hurt are 19 years old or younger, according to the consumer commission’s report. Men are three times more likely to be injured than women.
Last year in the U.S., between June 22 and July 22, more than 5,000 people — not including professional pyrotechnicians — were treated in hospital emergency departments for fireworks-related injuries, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. About 1,000 of those involved sparklers or bottle rockets.
Sparklers can burn at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to melt some metals, the consumer commission says.
Homeowners who shoot off fireworks also open themselves to liability conundrums if other people are injured.
“There is likely some coverage for someone who was just an innocent by-stander,” said Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, a property-casualty research group. “There is usually limited coverage under the no-fault medical coverage portion of a homeowner’s policy. These expenses are paid without a liability claim being filed against you.”
A standard homeowner’s policy might provide $1,000 to $5,000 in no-fault medical coverage. But if a homeowner or a family member is injured, homeowner’s coverage would defer to that person’s health insurance to pay the bills.
A homeowner can have serious problems if a neighbor’s house catches fire, or if a bystander is injured or killed, as a result of fireworks that are illegal in Connecticut.
“Liability covers you against lawsuits for bodily injury or property damage that you or family members cause to other people,” Worter said. “The liability portion of your policy pays for both the cost of defending you in court and any court awards — up to the limit of your policy.”
If the fireworks were illegal, the insurer would be under no obligation to pay, she said.
“Illegal activities are not covered under a homeowners policy,” Worters said.
In practice, some insurers might cover the damage or liability depending on the insurer and the claims adjuster, said Hackett, of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.
“Insurance companies may respond differently depending upon the terms of their policy and depending upon the particular circumstances of what happened,” Hackett said.
By contrast, public fireworks shows have many layers of protection and regulation.
They are subject to rigorous state and federal regulations, not to mention stiff requirements by a specialty line of property-casualty insurers that underwrite risk for commercial pyrotechnicians, also called shooters.
“Whoever is sponsoring the show will hire a licensed shooter, who is licensed through the state of Connecticut, and they will submit a permit application, and that permit application will have to go through the local police chief and the local fire department,” said Sgt. Mark D. Grasso, acting commanding officer of the Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit with Connecticut State Police.
In addition to local police and fire protection often required at public displays, there’s a long list of state regulations, too. Any large commercial fireworks display has to be approved by Grasso’s unit.
State police experts check to make sure the show complies with the Connecticut Fireworks and Special Effects Code, containing pages and pages of regulations. Among the many requirements are minimum distances from spectators, buildings, highways and other property that could be damaged. For example, fireworks shot from a 12-inch mortar must be at least 1,200 feet from a school, hospital, church, theater, bulk storage facility and several other types of property.
Most of the large town displays will end triumphantly with a colorful finale and nothing more. But even with layers of state and federal oversight, there’s always a chance of perilous consequences.
One particularly serious fireworks accident in Connecticut occurred on the Fourth of July in 1990 at a public display in Torrington. A launching tube containing a rocket fell over, shooting the missile into a crowd about 300 feet away. The rocket exploded and injured 18 people, including a 3-year-old boy. The accident resulted in a $650,000 settlement in January 1995, which was covered by the city of Torrington’s insurance company.
Two years ago, at a fireworks display in Madison, a shell struck a pyrotechnician in the leg, Grasso said.
“Even the commercial displays are dangerous,” Grasso said. “That’s why there is such an extensive set of regulations and why we concentrate on conducting these inspections and ensuring compliance with them.”
A pyrotechnician has to have a certificate of competency through the state showing proper training, in addition to a notice of clearance from the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which involves a background check, Grasso said. The certificate of competency involves a written test and three years of apprenticeship on a fireworks show, he said.
In addition, the state Insurance Department requires a commercial fireworks pyrotechnician to get a certificate at least 15 days before the event proving the vendor has proper insurance coverage. The pyrotechnician has to have $1 million in combined liability, bodily injury and or property damage coverage per accident.
Eric Treend has made a career of selling specialty insurance to both professional pyrotechnicians and to vendors who sell fireworks to consumers. The professionals are heavily regulated and fairly safe, he said, but consumer fireworks have improved, too.
“I can tell you from the consumer side there are much fewer claims,” said Treend, executive vice president of pyrotechnics at Britton Gallagher specialty insurance providers in Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s improved dramatically.”
The industry got much safer because of the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, he said. The laboratory was established in 1989 by people in the fireworks industry to develop and maintain safety and quality standards for each classification of fireworks. As of December 2011, the laboratory has tested more than 75 million cases of consumer fireworks.
“They have a very strict, strict standard on product quality,” Treend said.
For information on fireworks safety, visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website.
Information specialist Tina Lender contributed to this report.