What makes fireworks so special?

I’m writing this on 7th November, just after Bonfire Night – or Guy Fawkes Night as we used to call it when we were young. Nowadays, of course, it’s considered politically incorrect to celebrate the torture and death of a man who allegedly1 plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, so we don’t make effigies of poor old Guy and burn them on our bonfires these days. I think even the bonfires are dying out, if you’ll excuse the pun.

But hey, fireworks are great fun, aren’t they? They light up the skies with rockets exploding like blossoming chrysanthemums, stars and streaks of colour shooting skywards, trails of pink and violet tinted smoke. There are gleefully loud bangs, crackles, snaps and pops, with children and adults alike gazing at the skies in wonder, wreathed in huge smiles2. Everyone loves fireworks.

But those bangs and whines and whizzes are growing ever louder. You practically need ear-defenders now to stand and watch a public display, and even indoors, streets away from fireworks being set off in someone else’s garden, it’s enough to make you jump … and your cat disappear under the sofa and your dog wet himself, wedge himself into the tightest dark space he can find, and pant half his available body fluids onto the electrical bar down there. It’s no exaggeration to say that every year, a handful of dogs die of heart attacks during a firework session, some injure themselves running into household furniture, and others bolt, escaping from gardens and getting lost. Some of those who bolt end up running into roads and dying, or getting seriously injured.

This week I have read, in the UK media, of several dogs killed on the road after running off terrified by daytime fireworks, and many more running off terrified but being recovered safely. I’ve read about two dead horses and many galloping around terrified in their fields or rearing, rolling-eyed, in their stables. There have been around fifteen or twenty missing cats reported on our local ‘lost pets’ Facebook group, and dead birds and rabbits found in gardens.  There has been one case of a farmer finding three of his cows in a water-filled ditch (one dead), where they had fallen, running in panic from fireworks set off at the gate of their field.   And, disturbingly, fireworks thrown at a blind woman with her guide dog, a firework placed in a homeless man’s jacket pocket, two incidents of fireworks being thrown into crowded buses, causing terror and injury, and one pushed through a house letterbox. These are just the ones I’ve read – I’m sure there have been many more. Increasingly, emergency service workers seem to become targets of firework misuse, and increasingly, those who dare to voice a complaint are verbally abused – this week I read of a woman who has sheep in her field and dogs in her house having very large fireworks aimed deliberately at her house after asking a group of young men to take their unofficial display away from the public land next to her property3. She says that the fireworks looked like display quality fireworks, which should never have been available to the general public and should never have been set off near livestock or residential areas, and yet they were. Her sheep and dogs were beyond terrified, and she was frightened herself, and had to stay up all night with her traumatised dogs. The police were called, but – as if often the case – arrived too late.

No doubt those concerned in these incidents thought they were most amusing. Those concerned did not, and neither do I.

There are, every year, several impassioned petitions out there requesting a limitation on the noise level of fireworks, the time frame in which you can buy them, and/or their availability to the public. To my personal knowledge, three have gained well over the 100,000 signatures required for a debate in parliament – and they have had (or will have) their debates. The answer is always the same: “We believe current legislation is sufficient” and “We believe that most people use fireworks responsibly”.

What I would like to ask is this:

Why are fireworks such a special case?

We now have knives and scissors sold in impenetrable packaging because of stabbing incidents. We have limitations on gun ownership because of shooting incidents. We have limits on how many/how much you can buy of  pain-killers, decongestants, and certain garden chemicals because addicts can make crack cocaine, or terrorists can make bombs with those things. We have over-packaging of nearly all our food and drink in the shops due to one or two cases where criminals have tampered with them and added poisons. We have to practically strip and have our personal belongings x-rayed at airports, and we can’t take even a bottle of babyfood or medicine through security without special conditions being met because of terrorist attacks – good grief, they tried to take my husband’s walking stick away from him to put through the scanner last time we flew!

And yet anyone who is over eighteen can walk into a shop and buy prepackaged explosive devices, some of them alarmingly large. Does this make ANY kind of sense to you? It isn’t as if they are harmless, is it? Apart from the incidents mentioned above, numerous people arrive at UK hospitals for weeks around 5th November with firework-related injuries, many of them life-changing, and many of those hurt are children. According to an article in The Guardian, the number of people admitted to A&E has more than double since 2010, and the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive an Aesthetic Surgeons is calling for graphic representations of firework injuries to be added to firework packaging4.

It is impossible to police the current regulations with our depleted police forces, so why not admit that firework use is beyond control at the moment and limit them at the source? Let’s keep them for public displays only. Let’s go back to the days when you knew exactly when you should expect fireworks – because at the moment, it’s not just 5th November and New Year’s Eve5, plus Diwali and Chinese New Year, it’s weddings & parties, Christmas lights switch-ons, concerts, various other celebrations (or even no celebration at all) which can literally be any day of the year. It might not be legal to stockpile fireworks, but judging by what I hear from the comfort of my living room, people do it, and they do it quite regularly. And of course, you can always apply for a licence for any old public celebration you like, and if you qualify, you can buy even bigger, louder, brighter fireworks.

We cannot know the true extent of the damage and terror fireworks cause.  It’s an offence under the Animal Welfare Act of 2006 to cause suffering to an animal, but nobody counts terrorised pets, or terrorised or dead wildlife or failure-to-breed in either wildlife or farm stock.   Nobody counts terrorised and bewildered dementia patients, autistic people, or those with PTSD, either.  Can you imagine coming back traumatised from a war zone and having to deal with fireworks that sound like mortars exploding?

And worst of all, as far as I know, nobody keeps a central register of incidents involving fireworks in the UK as a whole, although a small but dedicated group on Facebook is doing their best to create one.  So what the heck is it going to take to get the legislation changed?


If you want the latest petitions:

NEW 2018 petition

Government petition

RSPCA quick and easy email to Government. –https://www.rspca.org.uk/getinvolved/campaign/fireworks?

1. And who was probably only the gang’s scapegoat anyway

2. Except the youngest and the nervous ones who are rightfully terrified, but are often told by their parents not to be silly because ‘it’s fun’.

3. I am 100% sure that there have been many more, these are just the ones I’ve heard about.

4. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/nov/05/plastic-surgeons-call-for-cigarette-style-warnings-on-fireworks

5. And when was it, exactly, that New Year’s Eve became a firework night, too? It never was, not in my youth.