Don't expect fireworks for the Millennium

A shortage of trained pyrotechnists could mean that instead of a bang, the big night goes off with a whimper. Keith Nuthall reports
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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S fireworks industry is warning that there could be a serious shortage of trained pyrotechnists able to stage dramatic large- scale displays to welcome the new Millennium.

It is thought that there are only 150 such specialists, which means there will be a shortfall even if just 10 per cent of towns and cities hold firework extravaganzas.

Unless scores of enthusiasts receive intensive training, some large cities could be left without public firings of rockets, Catherine wheels, Roman candles, fountains and mines.

John Culverhouse, of Fantastic Fireworks, of Luton - one of the UK's biggest pyrotechnics companies - warned that the eight large specialist firms were already being booked for the big night, by hotels, companies and private individuals.

He told the Independent on Sunday that there was concern that municipal displays would lose out, for councils will take funding decisions at budget meetings next March.

There were also fears that untrained "cowboys" could step in. Mr Culverhouse said: "Inevitably people will be tempted to go out and put on shows without risk assessments or proper equipment with dodgy fireworks bought cheaply from China.

"At the very least, there will be a lot of disappointed customers and at the worst, there could be a lot of nasty accidents."

The demand for Millennium Night displays will be far more intense than that for Guy Fawkes, where displays are usually held on days around 5 November, not just the night itself.

"For the Millennium," said Martin Guest, of Black Cat Fireworks and the CBI explosives industry group, "everyone will want fireworks on the same day and at the same time."

Colin Beardwood, vice-chairman of the Local Government Association's environment and regulation board, which is discussing council Millennial celebrations, said prompt action was needed by his officers. "This is something that we need to address as a matter of urgency," he said. "We shall be issuing guidance to our constituent bodies."

His difficulties have been intensified by government regulations made in 1996 which banned the general public from buying shells fired from tubes - the most powerful fireworks - following the death of three amateur enthusiasts.

These state that only "professionals" should be able to buy and fire such pyrotechnics, and with Millennium Night approaching it is becoming clear that these "professionals" will be a scarce commodity.

The CBI group and the British Pyrotechnists Association have been developing a B Tech course at Loughborough College which could be up and running by the end of this year.

But it is not yet clear whether its classes will be able to train students to a high enough standard to meet the demand for elaborate displays on the night of 31 December 1999.

They would have to learn basic safety tips - such as not pointing rockets over the heads of spectators, or looking down a shell tube: a mistake that has led to serious casualties.

More advanced training would consider the effect of windspeed on fireworks, the velocity of explosions, how to protect boxes of fireworks from errant sparks and how to deal with rain.

The need for such a course could become even more urgent, with the passing of a Fireworks Bill, which has just been piloted through the Commons by Plymouth Sutton MP Linda Gilroy.

This would give the President of the Board of Trade, Margaret Beckett, powers to set clear guidelines on who could purchase hazardous fireworks displays and ban certain fireworks and displays on safety and nuisance grounds.

A DTI spokesman said that the minister was likely to arm herself with its powers, and would probably make an order compelling firework display firers to be trained under an officially approved course.

Consumer Affairs minister Nigel Griffiths told a Commons debate: "Our concern is to ensure that the organisers of displays do not bypass training and the mechanisms we are putting in place, evade their responsibilities and put the public at risk.

"We all know of tragic cases in which people have under existing law obtained larger fireworks, set them off and imperilled their own health and safety and that of others. That must be tackled."

Mrs Gilroy said: "In drafting the Bill, I was certainly conscious that interest in fireworks and displays would increase in the run-up to the Millennium.

"In order to stem the relentless increase in firework injuries, certain types of larger fireworks have been banned from sale to the public.

"The Bill provides the framework under which such fireworks may become available to groups dependent on appropriate training."