In our online survey of fireworks petitioners, dozens of veterans of military conflicts and their families described fireworks triggering panic attacks or symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We invited veterans who completed the survey and had given consent to be contacted to a deliberative workshop in Westminster. The first part of the workshop was intended to provide a fuller understanding of the experiences of veterans affected by fireworks; in part two the group discussed the case for a ban on public sale and use of fireworks and several compromise solutions.
The discussion was chaired by our Committee Member, Martyn Day MP, and facilitated by House of Commons staff.
Six members of the public took part:
The veterans explained that they were generally fine through the year until the main fireworks season began in October. For some, anxiety began to build as fireworks season approached.
Organised public firework displays caused relatively few problems, because it was generally known when and where they would be held, and they could prepare for them. The problems came mostly from private displays in domestic gardens and fireworks set off in other public areas, when they didn’t know they were coming and could not prepare.
All the veterans described problems associated with the “randomness” of fireworks; it was impossible to use the usual “avoiding behaviours” to mitigate the effects of sudden loud noises when you didn’t know when a firework might be set off.
Veterans described the problems caused by fireworks of different colours. For example, green fireworks brought on recollections of gunfire. Other colours brought on different memories. For example, for one veteran some fireworks brought on flashbacks of being in an ambush, which caused him to “cower in a corner, a quivering wreck”, shaking and crying. This veteran said, “it takes you straight back to Afghanistan”. He argued very strongly that veterans needed much more support, including much greater control of fireworks.
A veteran explained that, when fireworks season came around, he tended to finish work, come home and go straight upstairs. He would put headphones on to drown out any noise from fireworks. He described disturbed sleep from October/November until the new year, every year. The problem had affected his family life, including his two-year-old daughter; on one occasion an explosion from a firework had caused him to react to take cover with his daughter.
All the veterans talked about fireworks causing this kind of “hyper-vigilance”, in which military training “instinctively kicked in”. This included those whose symptoms stopped short of a combat PTSD diagnosis but who were still badly affected. A veteran in this situation described sudden, unexpected loud noises such as fireworks causing him to shake and re-live military experiences in much the same way as those with PTSD. Another said that he had, “come out of [the armed forces] pretty unscathed, but for those three weeks around fireworks night it’s horrendous”.
The group agreed that it only took one loud unexpected bang to trigger bad reactions. The partner of a veteran described how a single bang from a firework had almost caused her husband to crash while driving his car. A single firework could trigger a reaction which made it impossible to sleep that night.
A partner of a veteran described the fireworks season’s effects on family life. Her partner would “not talk for three weeks”. It was a really difficult time every year, particularly because the fireworks season coincided with Remembrance Day, which provoked strong memories and emotions. It was a “horrible” time for the whole family. She described the frustration of not being able to do anything to prevent the problems occurring every year. She said the fireworks season seemed to be “getting longer every year”; she described last year’s season as “the most prolonged and random season ever”.
There was strong support for a ban on the sale and use of fireworks by the general public. Veterans and their partners argued strongly that use of fireworks by the general public could and should be better controlled. It was mentioned several times that fireworks were essentially explosives. Veterans and their partners felt strongly that they should be handled and used by professionals only. One participant couldn’t understand “why they can’t be controlled like weapons with licences and safe storage”.
From a clinical psychotherapy perspective, however, it was noted that loud, unexpected bangs could never be eliminated from life and that there were treatments available for those affected. It was important that such treatments were made more widely available.
The group discussed four main alternatives to a total ban on public sale and use:
There was little support for making fireworks quieter. The group was sceptical that they would be effective for them. It was noted that “a bang is a bang and will trigger a reaction”. It was not just the bang of a firework that was problematic, it was also the sound as they were set off and ascending. Making fireworks quieter could not entirely solve the problem in any case, because the noise of fireworks was not the only trigger for veterans’ reactions; they were also affected by the differently coloured flashing lights, as discussed above. The group felt that it would be impossible to control the level of sound, type of sound and the flashing lights of fireworks. The partner of a veteran felt that laser light shows could reproduce much of the spectacle of a fireworks display without the problems associated with noise.
Veterans and their partners did not believe that fireworks should be banned altogether but felt strongly that they should only be used by professionals in a more organised and structured way. One participant praised the organisation of large, professional fireworks events, such as the National Fireworks Championships.
There was a strong view that if fireworks were to remain on sale to the public, the age restriction of 18 should be raised. There was also some scepticism, however, that age restrictions on sales were properly enforced.
Veterans argued that if the public were to be allowed to buy and use fireworks, they should be required to get a permit—probably from the local authority (County Council level)—which stated when and where they intended to use them. Dates and times of displays could then be made public. Participants believed a local event permit system could lead to more organised, public displays, and, if an entry fee were charged, raise more revenue to offset some of the public costs of fireworks, such as resource costs for emergency services. It was believed the system could tie-in with existing HSE guidelines.
The group believed current rules, such as the 11pm–7am curfew, were very difficult to enforce. There was also a strong view that the police did not have enough resources to enforce the rules. There was scepticism that stiffer penalties would deter misuse and scepticism they would be any more effectively enforced than current penalties.
A partner of a veteran felt that local awareness campaigns “couldn’t hurt” but was doubtful that they could “make a huge difference”. She said she hadn’t told her neighbours about the effects of fireworks on her partner, and so couldn’t say whether raising their awareness would change their behaviour. She didn’t feel it was appropriate to disclose her partner’s problems because it was a private matter. One participant didn’t believe that a “self-policed” local system could work. A veteran argued that politicians needed to do more to help raise awareness, in Parliament and in the media, of the effects of fireworks on veterans. It was felt that high profile interventions such as this could make a difference. It was noted that the public were very aware of the effects of fireworks on animals, but much less so about the effects on veterans. There was a feeling that no one in the public eye was standing up for veterans on this issue.
The clear preferred option throughout the workshop was a ban on the public sale and use of fireworks.
Of the other options, the clear favourite was some form of greater control on public sale and use—with the clearest option with the greatest support being a local-authority controlled permit licensing.
Community-based, or high-profile national, awareness-raising also received some support, but there was much less certainty that this would be effective.
No one in the group believed making fireworks quieter or stiffer penalties for misuse would be effective.
Published: 5 November 2019