The Home Office and a Trip to Malta.

First appeared in Fireworks Magazine

Well, what a busy time it has been since my last column in Fireworks magazine. I write this having just come from a meeting with Home Office counter-terrorism officials who are concerned about the implications of (another) European Directive. This Directive does make sense and has been created to keep us all safe. The ‘Marketing and Use of Explosives Precursors’ Directive will lead to controls on the sale of certain explosives precursors above set concentrations to the general public (but not from business to business). Explosive precursors are essentially ingredients that terrorists might use to create a home-made bomb (but don’t include fireworks). Such ingredients might be hydrogen peroxide above 12%, nitromethane above 30%, potassium chlorate above 40% and so on. The directive will make it harder than it currently is for terrorists to lay their hands on these ingredients.


The home office and a trip to malta

That all makes sense, however in so doing the Home Office (HO) are concerned that illegitimate users may turn to other routes to obtain their explosives - and the fear is that the threat will be displaced to the fireworks market. The HO met with industry officials to seek industry-wide support to help identify what may be ‘suspicious purchases’ of fireworks. If you think about it, those of us that run retail operations will generally be able to identify a typical customer - someone with hard earned money wanting the best bang for their buck, they want to know how many shots, what duration, what would we recommend and so on. A suspicious transaction might be someone who is different and for example, wants a dozen of the same item - or perhaps places the same very specific order on a website. Talking through the meeting it became clear that there were occasions when suspicions would arise and for these the HO wish to encourage retailers to report. There was no expectation for transactions to not take place, just a request that suspicious ones be reported afterwards. Information would be treated in confidence. Representatives made a lot of suggestions to the HO officials. It is still early days, but I would expect us all to see information and basic training materials to reach every firework retailer before this coming 2014 firework season.

Just a few days before the Home Office meeting, I was coming to the end of a wonderful first trip to Malta. Three of us, including my business partner Sean Durcan travelled to watch two firework feasts in the Maltese capital. On the Wednesday night we were to watch a huge pyromusical display in the Grand Harbour celebrating the tenth anniversary of Malta joining the EU, to be followed on the Saturday night by the 8th Annual Maltese Mechanised Wheel Competition held in The Granaries, Floriana.

We landed in Malta on the Wednesday afternoon and shortly made our way to the centre of Valletta for dinner, followed by the fireworks. We met up with Joseph and Bertie from the St Bartholomew Fireworks Factory who we had been put in touch with by a colleague here in the UK. They were fantastic hosts and found us the most wonderful viewing location at the water’s edge of the Grand Harbour, opposite the main firing barge. I was pleased to bump into Mark Kelsall and Hannah Clarkson from Pyrotex on the way, who had just won the Malta International Fireworks Festival competition, one of the first international teams to ever do so I gather. A very well done to them!

The EU celebration display lasted around twenty minutes and comprised a main firing barge with some small satellites for single shot material and some candles, along with a 30-head (or so it seemed) search light display plus video projection. The display didn’t particularly have the all important ‘wow’ factor for me. There were lots of lengthy single-shot sequences almost at water level with volleys of shells here and there rather than throughout. The silver finale was awesome and left you wanting more, but unfortunately there was no more. For me the quality of Italian material was the outstanding feature of the show, beautiful colours and precision. Impact though was generally lacking.

Joseph and Bertie very kindly invited us to their fireworks factory, which turned out to be a joy to visit. For those that don’t know, the Maltese tradition is to produce fireworks for one display per year, centring around a religious festival held by each village on different dates and accompanying a special feast. As such the fireworks are not produced on a commercial scale, their production is funded by the very volunteers who make the fireworks, with their church as a common bond. Each month, the factory works on different aspects of their production, one month the stars, another month the assembly, another month the finishing and lift charges etc. This month they were making the salutes, and oh my, what a huge array of salutes and all so beautifully constructed. We saw small salutes the size of the end of your finger, wrapped in brown paper and precisely string-bound with a decent black powder prime. We saw bigger versions too, including shelves laden with 6 inch salutes that had been prepared to go into multi-break cylinder shells later. The factory had a number of rooms for mixing, manufacture, assembly, drying and separate stores for coloured items and salutes. We will go back one day, there’s no doubt, maybe next time we’ll learn a little more of the Maltese art. A special thanks to Joseph and Bertie - true gentlemen and friends, with particular thanks to Bertie who took us to some secret ‘beauty spots’ to see incredible vistas across the Malta landscape.

On our last night on the island we watched the unbelievable Maltese wheels. Eleven factories each produce two devices which are judged by an international panel on technical complexity, pyrotechnic design and overall impression. This is the sort of competition I would actually like to judge myself one day, it’s so different to a normal fireworks display, you could really appreciate the heart and soul that had gone into producing some quite outstanding mechanised fireworks. We visited during the set-up in the morning and then again to watch in the evening. The complexity and attention to detail on the wheels is jaw-dropping. All of the wheels, rotors, gears, pulleys and chains that make up the mechanisms are manufactured in-house to create specific patterns and effects. The devices actually produce miniature displays themselves - some first functioning as a wheel, then with lattices of fountains fast and slow, whistles etc producing patterns and then perhaps more wheels attached to the outer structure. These wheels are fired to music and keep going like that. We were told some of the devices had over a 1000 cues. The main rule here is no electric or powered motors of any kind - pyro power only. So much thought and planning went into these, I actually wanted to go and shake the hand of every team afterwards - this was outstanding work.

Back to the UK and some news in brief. The Explosives Legislative Review is coming to a close. The Explosives Regulations 2014 will come into force later this year. They will be a complete update of explosives legislation and will be accompanied by new guidance for all in the industry. I’ve been involved in the Working Group looking at firework displays and the guidance we’ve been working on will be fantastic, particularly for those who only do occasional displays who will find the new guide a rich source of information on how to operate legally. We’ve tried to cover all bases and have included examples where possible (eg: how adding a small amount of hazard type 3 fireworks to a hazard type 4 store will result in the entire store being considered hazard type 3, or the various legal locations and situations in which firework fusing may be carried out). Each sector will have its own guidance documents rather than the particularly large ACOP to MSER which we cart around at the moment. Your guide will be specific to your industry. It’s been refreshing working with the HSE team on this, particularly Ann Faulkner and also Martyn Sime, lead technical advisor to the process. The ‘own use’ matters that I have written about in previous issues continue. A brief recap - a new EU directive requires category 4 fireworks to be CE marked, unless you manufacture them for your own use. CE marking carries a cost, but is really aimed at the supply market - it makes sure products you supply are safe and have appropriate information for the end-user to use them safely. If you manufacture for your own use that information you will already know. The exemption is for fireworks you manufacture, and the question is whether importing a firework you have caused to be manufactured is the same. We say it is, of course it is, but having this confirmed is taking the time. You’ll appreciate there is much more to this than I can explain in a paragraph, but I would expect that by the next issue of Fireworks we will at least have an indication of where we’re headed with the matter. Now, to matters BPA… We’ve been looking at our criteria for membership over our past few meetings, wanting to clearly define what we require for companies to join the Association. We represent the professional firework display industry in the UK, but our members feel that there is a line to be drawn somewhere separating those that fire displays as their profession from those that it’s not their profession but they do it as a separate line even though it may be in a professional manner. You might make the comparison between a 24/7 365 plumbing company, and someone you know who can do your bathroom for you at the weekend. We still have a meeting to come on this, but essentially it looks as though membership criteria will be to have a minimum annual turnover of £50k plus VAT on professional displays, to have been trading for two years (to be evidenced by production of public liability insurance documents covering the previous two years with at least £5million year-round cover) and to have HSE or Local Authority licensed storage (not including Registered Premises). See the BPA website for full information Finally, by the time you read this the Commonwealth Games will have come to a conclusion with the Closing Ceremony fireworks being fired by Pains Fireworks. Good luck to everyone working on displays over the Summer months!

Read more about Malta here.