In the wake of the West Warwick disaster, special effects experts advise how to ensure safe spectacles

In the May/June issue, SRO excerpted portions of an article from sister publication, Special Events, that discussed the new scrutiny on the use of dangerous special effects at live events in the aftermath of the tragic West Warwick, R.I., nightclub fire in February. One-hundred people died that day, in a horrific fire triggered by an illegal pyro display.

The Spider-Man Live tour, which has visited 40 cities in the United States, features Spider-Man pitching pyro, thanks to special effects from Wow!Works. Photo: Andrew French.

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.”

Indeed, some venues have put a temporary ban on indoor pyro.

But special effects professionals, while decrying the deadly safety violations by the amateur pyro operator at West Warwick, are fighting back, taking extra steps to ensure comprehensive event safety while protecting their businesses.

According to David Spear, CSEP, head of special effects company Classic Effects, Madisonville, La., and ISES president, firms like his are now requiring more pre-event meetings, and are demanding that venues and decorators provide flame-treatment certifications for materials that will be located near pyro displays.

‘Flameless Fireworks’ from X-Streamers make for cool effects at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s fifth anniversary bash.

Pyro isn't the only fire danger. “Electric problems, cigarettes, and hot light bulbs can all start a fire with combustible materials,” Spear adds.

Following is the second part of this special report, focusing on steps that industry professionals recommend can be taken to keep pyro displays safe and entertaining.

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,” he says. Wise planners will also ask to be named as an “additional insured” on the policy, notes David Sorin, CSEP, head of 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 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 or structures. I would not volunteer this information and would not hire them if they failed to at least discuss it.”

  • ‘Fear No Ice preps its trademark Fire and Ice show, including pyro from Lantis Fireworks, for an event at the Mirage, Las Vegas, for client WellPoint.
  • 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 the pyro effects, the pyro control/technician position, and 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 it,” 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 request 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 insure the project or production has its permits approved, and if changes need to be made, we can accomplish them,” Wymer adds. “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 pryo 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 for the fire marshal to be present during both the advance rehearsal/demo and the pyrotechnic production.

  • Be sure to budget funds to cover the cost of 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 pryo 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 pyro. “They should not be responsible for light or sound,” he says, adding that the tech at every firing location should be equipped with communication and fire extinguishing equipment. He also says that the lead pyro tech or shooter must 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. X-Streamers of Shelton, Conn., for instance, offers clients its “flameless fireworks” show, offering computer-controlled bursts of confetti and streamers that are powered pneumatically. No permit is required, according to company head John Jaworski. “I have acquired a number of new clients that were considering pyro, but now needed a substitute,” he says.

But most effects professionals think that pyro — handled properly — remains a valuable event embellishment. Event performance company Fear No Ice, Deer Park, N.Y., combines ice sculpture with pyro effects.

“We are following the same procedures as we always have,” says Scott Rella, a principal with the firm.”Indoor effects will continue to grow and will be used more just by the simple fact that they add to most all events,” says Rella. “Our show ‘Fire and Ice’ 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 whom they feel are giving their profession a black eye.

“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 who 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 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.”

Lisa Hurley is editor of Special Events magazine and can be reached at