Special Events
WARY OF THE WOW PART II

WARY OF THE WOW PART II

THE MAY ISSUE of Special Events Magazine discussed the new scrutiny of special events in the aftermath of the tragic West Warwick, R.I., nightclub fire in February, in which 100 people died in a blaze triggered by an illegal pyro display.

In the months since, the industry has been under “heavy review,” notes Tylor Wymer, principal with Clermont, Fla.-based special effects company Wow!Works, “from venues, whose risk-management teams are reassessing their policies and insurance requirements, to suppliers and users, who must prove they are competent and using pyro product safely and correctly.” Some venues have put a temporary ban on indoor pyro.

But special effects professionals — who decry the deadly safety violations by the amateur pyro operator at West Warwick — are fighting back, taking extra steps to ensure comprehensive event safety.

According to David Spear, CSEP, head of special effects company Classic Effects in Madisonville, La., and ISES president, his firm is requiring more pre-event meetings, and is demanding that venues and decorators provide flame-treatment certifications for materials that will be near pyro displays. Pyro isn't the only fire danger: “Electric problems, cigarettes and hot light bulbs can all start a fire with combustible materials,” Spear adds.

SPECTACULAR AND SAFE

To help event planners build safety into events that use pyro, special effects pros offer these tips:

  • Demand to see the special effects company's license.

  • Demand to see evidence that the company is insured. “And make sure that the certificate of insurance has pyro on it,” cautions Ray Brazeau, president of StarLite Pyrotechnics, Toronto. Without that specific coverage, “the caterer or event planner could lose everything they own.” Wise planners will also ask to be named as an “additional insured” on the policy, notes David Sorin, CSEP, head of event-industry consulting firm Event Company Advisory Services, Philadelphia.

  • Ask for detailed descriptions of the company's past experience. “Ask how many shows have they done, and do they specialize in and understand pyro?” Wymer suggests. “So many companies say they do pyro, but they really do fireworks, and the clients do not know the difference.”

  • Don't go cheap. “A disc jockey will do for $200 what an expert will do for $500,” Brazeau says. “People don't want to spend the money.”

  • Make sure the company shows initiative in developing a detailed plan for your event. “The only clue you may get beforehand if a pyrotechnic supplier is as safe and reliable as you would expect will be with the questions they ask you and how they respond to that information,” Brazeau says. “They should request a site inspection before even accepting the job. While on site, they should be seeking information about the venue such as ventilation systems, smoke alarms, heat sensors — which can be critical when placing product — audience placement, fire exits, and whether there is the possibility of pyrotechnics coming into contact with any flammable or combustible materials. I would not volunteer this information and would not hire them if they failed to at least discuss it.”

  • Bring all members of the event team together for planning meetings. “We are requesting a pre-production meeting, if one is not already scheduled, with all the involved elements of an event,” Spear says. “When the client or the event producer calls everyone together for this meeting, we advise everyone of the location of (a) the pyro effects, (b) the pyro control/technician position and (c) the fire extinguishers.”

  • Contact the fire marshal for a site inspection and plan review. But proceed cautiously: “Some fire marshals in larger cities are very experienced with indoor pyro, but many fire departments — particularly in small to mid-size cities — may be unfamiliar with indoor pyrotechnics,” Spear warns. “All of my technicians have a copy of NFPA 1126 [the National Fire Protection Association “Standard for the Use of Pyrotechnics before a Proximate Audience”] in their job books that can be referred to on a job site by the fire marshal, the venue manager or the event planner.”

  • Get a copy of the permit issued by the fire department. “Many ‘fully licensed’ amateur pyrotechnicians — such as disc jockeys — claim they do not use enough pyrotechnic devices and therefore are exempt from obtaining a permit,” Brazeau says. “That is simply untrue.”

  • Leave yourself plenty of time. “Most cities require that requests for permits are submitted 15 to 30 days before the event is to take place,” says Bryan Leiran, regional representative with Lantis Fireworks & Lasers, Draper, Utah. “We are working further in advance of the show to ensure that the project or production has its permits approved, and if changes need to be made, we can accomplish them,” Wymer says. “To the client, we are reinforcing that decisions are needed sooner rather than later. Fire marshals are not going to approve last-minute requests.”

  • Require certification that all set pieces and nearby materials are flame-treated.

  • Ask the venue for a copy of its emergency evacuation plans.

  • Rehearse the pyro display. “Ask for product demo in the venue the day before or morning of the show,” Brazeau says. “This will let you know, in a safe environment, how the product will perform in the venue and if there are any additional changes that need to be made to account for the pyrotechnic effects.” If you are using talent, be sure to include them in the pyro rehearsal. “This will allow the artist to be familiar with the effect and to maintain a comfortable distance from the devices while performing,” he adds.

  • Ask the fire marshal to be present during both the rehearsal/demo and the pyro production.

  • Be sure to budget funds to pay for standby fire watch personnel.

  • If you change the event, change your pyro plan. “If there are any changes whatsoever to the venue, the stage/set or layout following the inspection, then you have an obligation and responsibility to ensure that the information is immediately communicated to the pyrotechnician,” Brazeau says.

  • Require that pyro devices are never left unattended on site unless they are in a locked storage facility.

  • Don't let the excitement of the event itself overshadow safety. During his pyro shows, “No person walks into my ‘safety zone,’ or I shut it down,” Brazeau says. He also urges that pyro technicians focus exclusively on the pyro — “They should not be responsible for light or sound” — that the tech at every firing location be equipped with communication and fire extinguishing equipment; and that the lead pyro tech or shooter have a clear, unobstructed line of sight to all devices at all times during the performance.



PYRO'S PROSPECTS

In reaction to the new concerns about safety, some effects companies are promoting alternatives to pyro. Shelton, Conn.-based X-Streamers offers its “Flameless Fireworks” show — computer-controlled bursts of confetti and streamers that are powered pneumatically. No permit is required, according to company head John Jaworski, and “I have acquired a number of new clients that were considering pyro, but now needed a substitute,” he notes.

But most effects pros think that pyro — handled properly — remains a valuable event embellishment. Event performance company Fear No Ice combines ice sculpture with pyro effects, “and we are following the same procedures as we always have,” says Scott Rella, principal with the Deer Park, N.Y.-based firm. “Indoor effects will continue to grow and will be used more just by the simple fact that they add to most all events. Our show continues to wow and amaze audiences, and Fear No Ice anticipates more and more of these shows. We have been seeing an increase in requests even after the tragedy.”

Rather than adding new regulations, the special effects industry wants regulators to go after the dangerous amateurs.

“The products and technology in the pyrotechnic industry are more than adequate to prevent accidents,” Brazeau says. “The problem is the people using them. Amateurs like those responsible for the West Warwick incident need to be removed from the industry. Government agencies responsible for pyrotechnics need to toughen license and product-purchasing criteria. Stiffer penalties need to be put in place and enforced for those that violate regulations.”

The special effects industry regards the core issue not as whether pyro is inherently dangerous, but as whether event professionals are on the job to address all the event elements that may be dangerous.

“I have heard from many event professionals since the West Warwick fire, who shared their experiences with finding potentially catastrophic situations like chained or blocked exit doors, malfunctioning exit signs or overloaded electrical circuits just before the start of events,” Spear says. “Because of their training and/or event management certification, however, they were able to get these problems resolved before the audience entered the venue. Event professionals and pyrotechnic special effect professionals like myself take pride in the safe and entertaining use of special effects. However, the first rule is to never sacrifice the safety for the spectacular.”




RESOURCES

Classic Effects, 866/455-5201, www.classiceffects.com; Event Company Advisory Services, 610/783-5305; Fear No Ice, 516/383-4526, www.fearnoice.com; Lantis Fireworks & Lasers, 800/443-3040, www.lantisfireworks.com; StarLite Pyro-technics, 416/691-2039, www.starlitepyrotechnics.com; Wow!Works, 352/243-2124, www.wow-works.com; X-Streamers, 203/925-7699, www.x-streamers.com

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