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Bonfires and firework displays

Safety advice for organisers of bonfire displays - public or semi-public events

This advice has been prepared mainly to help organisers of public or semi-public bonfire displays to hold a safe event. 'Semi-public' could for example be the garden of a public house. Also much of the guidance will be useful to organisers of smaller displays.

Before the display

It is important to plan well ahead and to involve the organisations listed below as early as possible. One way of doing this is to set up an organising committee where each member has responsibility for a particular task. One person should be placed in charge of the safety arrangements. If possible, at least one member of the committee should have previous experience of organising a bonfire display. Each member should have a clear understanding of their duties.

These duties include:

  • ensuring that the bonfire is built safely
  • keeping the public at a safe distance
  • making sure that the bonfire is extinguished safely
  • making sure that there are suitable phones in place for emergency use and calling the emergency services, if necessary
  • the organisers of the event should also ensure that there is adequate insurance to cover personal injury and damage. Any traders on site should have their own insurance
  • there is a suitable Fire Risk Assessment

Consultation

In some places it may be helpful to warn other people, farmers on nearby farms or occupiers of nearby residential, commercial or industrial premises, who may be affected.

Stewards and stewarding

It is important to have enough stewards, and for them to be suitably trained by a competent person, to ensure the safety of the people attending. There should be one steward to every 250 (or part of 250) people present, in addition more stewards may be needed to cover each entrance/exit and to carry out the duties listed below. The actual number should be agreed in advance with the police and the local council.

Organisers should consider carefully what they will need the stewards to do.

Duties may include:

  • acting as car park attendants
  • providing information
  • monitoring the bonfire area
  • keeping spectators behind barriers
  • ensuring that nothing is thrown onto the bonfire and that it does not spread
  • managing the public (particularly if alcohol is present)
  • calling and liaising with the emergency services
  • collecting rubbish
  • clearing up after the bonfire
  • making sure that the bonfire is extinguished

Stewards should be more than 18 years old and readily identifiable, for example by wearing a fluorescent jacket. They should be constantly watching for problems in the crowd, such as disorderly behaviour or emergencies. A Steward should know who is in charge of the event and should have a means of contacting them - a two-way radio at large events. They should know the location of phones for emergency use. They should stay until the event is over and make sure that the site is safe to be left.

Access to and exit from the site

There should be a suitable entrance, or entrances, for emergency vehicles previously agreed with the emergency services and kept clear of obstruction until the event is over. Emergency vehicles should be met by the person in charge of safety or a Senior Steward on arrival.

In enclosed areas, e.g. those with a fence, enough entrances and exits of adequate width, including emergency exits; should be provided to allow spectators to enter in an orderly manner and to leave easily at the end of the display. The needs of any spectators with disabilities should also be considered.

Warning signal

Organisers and stewards should have a pre-arranged coded signal to warn them that an emergency has developed and that help is required. The signal should be heard throughout the site but it should not cause panic amongst the spectators. At larger events a public address system may be used, and at smaller displays loud hailers could be used.

Position of the bonfire

It should be sited in a clear unenclosed space at a safe distance, preferably not less than 18 metres; from buildings, trees, wooden fences, overhead cables, car parking areas or firework displays which have already been set up. Where there is less space available the organiser is advised to consult the fire service.

There should be no combustible materials nearby, such as stacks of timber, hay, straw etc. which can be set alight accidentally or by people behaving irresponsibly. The prevailing wind direction must be taken into account when deciding the position of the bonfire. It should not blow towards the spectators or combustible materials.

It should be built in an area which has been cleared of undergrowth and where any surrounding grass has been cut short. In dry weather, the site should also be dampened down. The top layer of turf should be removed and stored away from the bonfire so that it can be replaced when the site is cold. Any debris left over from preparing the site should also be placed well away from the bonfire. Bonfires should not be built on peat, as peat fires can spread underground and emerge some distance away.

The bonfire should be carefully guarded before the event so that it cannot be set alight deliberately and to prevent children or animals using it as a den or shelter.

Bonfire construction

The bonfire should not contain any potentially hazardous materials which may explode or give off toxic fumes, such as:

  • aerosols
  • batteries
  • bottles
  • foam-filled furniture
  • tins of paint

Tyres should not be used as they produce large amounts of black smoke and can roll off the bonfire when alight. Also, materials producing light ash which could blow about, such as corrugated cardboard, should not be used.

The bonfire should be kept to a manageable size, the maximum height normally being six metres, preferably no more than three metres at semi-public events. It should be evenly built so that it collapses inwards as it burns. There should also be a suitable barrier around the bonfire, at a distance of not less than 1.5 times its height, to make sure that spectators are kept far enough away.

Planning for bad weather

Organisers will need to make plans in case of bad weather, including what to do if the bonfire cannot go ahead. Rain can dampen down the bonfire and fill the area with smoke, and can also encourage the use of highly flammable liquids, such as petrol, which must be avoided. Strong winds can result in flying brands from the bonfire reaching greater distances, in which case the barriers around the bonfire may need to be moved further back.

Lighting the bonfire

The display should start and finish at the advertised times. The bonfire should not normally be lit before any firework display unless the firework display is sufficiently far away to make sure that stray sparks from the bonfire cannot fall into the firework area.

The bonfire should be supervised by a competent person, whose responsibilities will include checking before the bonfire is lit that its construction is still sound, that there are no children or animals inside, and that hazardous items such as aerosols, fireworks etc have not been thrown onto it. The bonfire should not be lit by children or left unattended, and nothing should be cooked on it.

Flammable liquids such as petrol, diesel, methylated spirit or white spirit should never be poured onto the bonfire to light it or revive it. These liquids can cause a bonfire to flare up unexpectedly, or can cause an explosion from a build-up of their fumes, or the stream of liquid (if poured) can burn back to the person holding the container.

Damp bonfires should be lit by using dry kindling, e.g. newspaper, sacking, empty wooden boxes etc.

These materials should be placed inside the bonfire and will help it to burn from the inside out, drying out any damp materials stacked on the outside. Fuses can be made out of long, twisted rags soaked in used engine oil or paraffin. They should be trailed from the inside of the bonfire to a pre-determined lighting point outside. Alternatively, domestic firelighters can be used.

Suitable clothing should be worn by anyone who has to go near the bonfire. For example, a substantial overcoat of wool or other of low flammability material, a hood (if provided), long trousers (worn over any boots) and gloves. Avoid wearing long scarves which could trail.

If the bonfire becomes uncomfortable as it progresses, spectators should be able to move away freely from smoke, sparks and heat, without being trapped by the crowd.

Extinguishing the bonfire

At the end of the event, the bonfire should be extinguished with water and it should not be left until the steward responsible and the person in charge of safety is certain that it is out.

Signing off

If any emergency organisations are present at the display (fire service, police, first aid etc), the organiser should "sign off" with them at the end of the event.

The Health and Safety At Work Etc. Act 1974 and Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005

Organisers of public or semi-public displays should be aware of the requirements of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 which place a responsibility on them to ensure the safety of both employees and members of the public.

For further guidance, please refer to the Fire Safety Guide for Open Air Events and Venues or contact your local Fire Safety Office.

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