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As Fourth approaches, safety experts urge caution with fireworks

| Wednesday, June 27, 2012, 7:57 a.m.
A fire extinguisher is kept close by at a Phantom Fireworks stand set up at The Waterfront shopping center through the Fourth of July. Safety experts say an extinguisher or water source should be nearby whenever fireworks are being used. Eric Slagle | Daily News

With Independence Day just a week away, the sights and sounds of fireworks will become more commonplace.

Already tents selling consumer-grade fireworks are appearing along roadsides and parking lots and even mainstream retailers are selling fountains, sparklers and other items that smoke, screech, whistle and burn.

"Everybody likes the sparklers," said Kristee Cammack of Penn Hills, who was clerking at a Phantom Fireworks stand in a parking lot at the Waterfront on Tuesday.

Cammack, who worked the previous day when the tent opened and worked the stand last year, said a lot of families come in to stock up on state-legal fireworks. She noted only those 18 and older can buy fireworks.

"Today we had a grandmother with her two grandkids," Cammack said.

She noted the stand raises money for a charity she runs called A Giving Heart. The charity's mission is to help families and it operates a monthly soup kitchen in Pittsburgh's Hill District. Cammack, who was tending the stand with help from her sister Ramona Cammack, said the charity will receive a 20 percent commission on everything sold at the stand.

She said her organization hopes to build a shelter for the homeless.

In addition to sparklers, Cammack said Fiery Frogs previously had been popular sellers at the stand, which is open daily through July 4.

But fireworks fun has some serious downsides, namely burns and other injuries and fires.

Just this weekend a roadside fireworks tent along Route 30 near Chester, W.Va., blew up. Reports indicate no one was hurt but the incident resulted in a series of explosions that lasted more than 30 minutes.

In Pennsylvania, fireworks that leave the ground or explode are illegal but even devices that some would perceive as safe, such as charcoal snakes and sparklers, can cause serious burns if mishandled.

Public health and safety organizations discourage the use of fireworks by the general public, saying it's best to leave the fireworks to professionals who are trained to use them safely.

The Alliance to Stop Consumer Fireworks coordinated by the National Fire Protection Association says that in 2010 there were 15,500 fires related to fireworks nationally and 8,600 fireworks injuries treated in emergency rooms in the U.S.

Alliance literature indicates that children between the ages of 5 and 14 are more than twice at risk from being hurt by fireworks than the general population. Sparklers and novelty devices alone accounted for more than 38 percent of the emergency room fireworks cases reported in 2010, according to NFPA statistics.

Despite such statistics, fireworks appear to be more popular than ever.

Phantom Fireworks, which is based in Ohio, said in a release the total weight of fireworks it imports has grown by 75 percent, from 117 million pounds in 1994 to 205.9 million pounds in 2010.

It says fireworks made in China are safer now than in the past but still advises taking a common-sense approach to using fireworks.

The company says:

• Children should never handle fireworks. Only sober adults should handle and light them.

• Fireworks only should be used in a clear, open space and set off on a hard, flat surface.

• A connected hose, bucket of water or fire extinguisher should be close by when igniting fireworks.

• Dud fireworks should never be re-lit.

Other safety literature about fireworks offers cautionary tips that include:

• Never use homemade fireworks.

• Always use fireworks outside.

• Don't carry fireworks in pockets.

• Point fireworks away from homes, brush and other flammable materials.

• Pet owners are advised to keep their pets indoors when fireworks are being discharged.

Public safety authorities such as Sean Lear, who is West Mifflin's Duquesne Annex Volunteer Fire Co. chief and a long-time paramedic, said beyond fireworks, summer poses a host of risks of which people should be cognizant.

"Be aware of your surroundings and everything around you," Lear said.

Children should be closely monitored when taking part in water-related activities like swimming and boating and personal floatation devices should be worn.

When temperatures start soaring like they did last week and are expected to do later this week, Lear said people need to take extra precautions to protect themselves against the heat. That means staying hydrated, dressing appropriately in light, loose-fitting clothing, which can include hats to provide shade from the sun, and avoiding strenuous outdoor physical activity.

With bicycling growing in popularity, Lear said cyclists also need to think about safety.

"Make sure your bicycle is tuned up and that its brakes are working," Lear said. "And always wear a helmet."

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