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Fire Safety


Copyright © 1998 by Eric Bagai

KEROSENE is the safest fuel for all fire props. That doesn't mean that it is safe, but it's safer than any other kind of liquid fuel. It is the least explosive of fuels.

Pure kerosene is not particularly toxic. If splashed on the skin it should be wiped promptly, but if it isn't it will only give you contact dermatitis (skin rash). If it is splashed in the eyes it should be thoroughly rinsed out. If you should drink some, drink a glass or two of water to reduce the possibility of indigestion, gas, or diarrhea, but do not induce vomiting (because of the possibility of inhalation).

However, only a very few brands of kerosene are 100% pure, with no additives. These are sold as aviation kerosene and are not available to the general public. As of December 1998, I can find only Exxon Aviation Turbo Fuel, Mobil Jet Fuel-Kerosene turbine fuel, and Pennzoil Kerosene Turbine Fuel (Aviation).

All of the several hundred other brands and types of kerosene (aviation fuel, coal oil, heating oil, lamp oil, and fuel oil) contain a variety of extremely toxic ingredients, principally benzene and naphtha. These additives or impurities are absorbed though the skin and mucous membrane, and accumulate in the liver and kidneys. Some directly attack the corneas, so if such kerosene is splashed into the eyes, the eyelids should be held open and flushed for fifteen minutes, and you should seek medical attention immediately. Again, if swallowed, do not induce vomiting, but seek medical attention immediately.

What this means is that all kerosene should be treated as if it is highly toxic. If the Manufacturers Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for a particular brand of aviation-type kerosene says that it is one of the few that are 100% pure kerosene, then you might trust it if you also see the barrel it comes out of and read the labels on that barrel. Treat anything that is repackaged for retail sales (smaller than 55 gallon drums) as highly toxic. I've heard reports of people repackaging various grades of kerosene as nontoxic or good for jugglers and fire-eaters -- some was, some wasn't.

Scented and unscented lamp oil is kerosene without the bad smell. But contrary to popular belief, the additives that make it more aesthetically acceptable also make it more poisonous. Roman Oil was originally a naturally occuring fuel and lamp oil without the usual odor or smokiness. Again the assumption was that if it didn't smell bad it wasn't bad for you. And again, the assumption was wrong: it is often among the more toxic of kerosenes.

COLEMAN FUEL and LIGHTER FLUID (Ronsonal and Zippo) consist of naphtha with various additives to control smell and appearance. They are preferred by many jugglers because they are not as smoky or as smelly as kerosene, and they light quickly. But naphtha is much more volatile than kerosene -- that is, it is more likely to explode or get out of control than kerosene. You cannot dip blown-out but still smoldering torches into naphtha because that will instantly set the contents of your fuel jar on fire. Even approaching your fuel while holding smoldering torches can cause the fuel to explode. You must completely extinguish all smoldering and wait at least thirty seconds before recharging your torches when using naphtha. Naphtha is as toxic as the worst of kerosenes.

CHARCOAL STARTER (Kingsford and Wizard) is a mix of kerosene and naphtha. Some jugglers prefer a mixture of 4 parts Coleman to 1 part charcoal starter, because they think it makes a brighter but safer flame, with less smoke and stink. Others mix Coleman and kerosene to produce the same effect. All of these fuels are highly toxic if inhaled or ingested.

GASOLINE, PAINT THINNER, AIRPLANE FUEL, and other highly volatile fuels are extremely explosive and extremely toxic. The fumes remaining in a one-gallon can that has been emptied of gasoline can explode with the force of a stick of dynamite. When it is very hot and humid, gasoline fumes will not readily disperse and may be ignited as much as a half hour after all the original products are capped and stored. The fumes from Coleman, lighter fluid, and barbecue starter will explode almost as readily, but not with quite the same force -- say, a half-stick of dynamite. Kerosene and lamp oil are fairly hard to blow up, which is why they are used in lamps and home heaters.

GRAIN ALCOHOL is produced by fermentation. It is the basic ingredient in beer, wine, and liquors, and is not immediately poisonous. Beverages with an alcohol content of 60% (120 proof) or higher are volatile enough to be used with fire props, but are seldom used because they produce a wimpy flame.

Fire-eaters and fire-breathers sometimes use high-proof liquor, such as Ron Rico Purple Label Rum. This avoids the problems of poisoning, but blowbacks are just as likely. EVERCLEAR, which is pure (100%, 200 proof) grain alcohol, is also sometimes used. It approaches the volatility of gasoline, making blowbacks almost inevitable. It is not available in some states. The only medical problem with liquor or Everclear is that what you absorb from doing a few blasts of fire will get you quite drunk. That's not a reasonable condition to be in if you are doing fire.

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MSDS - Material Safety Data Sheet

Copyright © 2003 by Home of Poi Ltd

What is a MSDS?
A Material Safety Data Sheet contains information for handling or working with a particular substance. MSDS's include information like the flash point, toxicity, health issues and handling procedures. As well as what to do when something goes wrong in an accident.

Who should read a MSDS?
Anyone who uses a fuel or toxic material more so than the average consumer. Which means you if you perform/interact with a fuel in any way. Also you should read the MSDS if you are a safety person for a fire performer.

Why should I read the MSDS on the fuel that I use?
To use and interact with your fuel in a safe manner you need to know things like how flammable it is, what happens if you get it on your skin, what should you do if you swallow some, what do you do if you get it in your or anyone's eye, what should you do if you spill it or swallow it, how should it be stored, how it can be safely extinguished if on fire, will/can it explode, will it give you cancer, what effects can result from long term use.

Where do I get a MSDS?
Every company that manufactures or distributes hazardous chemicals must have/provide a MSDS. The purchaser has the right to know everything about the material that they are purchasing and as such the seller must assist you in obtaining a copy of the MSDS.

If they can not provide a MSDS do not purchase the fuel.

Some universities and library's may also have copies. Some can also be searched for on the Internet.

Where can I search for a particular MSDS on the Internet?
NOTE: The only way to truly know what is in your fuel is to get the MSDS from the manufacturer/supplier. searchable database - large database, unlimited searches
MSDS solutions - huge worldwide database, 50 free searches

Have we got some direct links to the MSDS of the fuel you are using?
No, because there are hundreds of manufacturers of the fuels we use throughout the world and the chemical makeup/composition varies considerably even across a country as with the toxicity. MSDS's are specific to the manufacturer and can change over time. Two bottles could both be labeled as the same fuel by different manufacturers, however their properties may still vary, especially the toxicity.

Who can I trust?
Be very careful. Say for example if the Manufacturers Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for a particular brand of aviation-type kerosene says that it is one of the few that are 100% pure kerosene, then you might trust it if you also see the barrel it comes out of and read the labels on that barrel. Treat anything that is repackaged for retail sales (smaller than 55 gallon drums) as highly toxic. Do not take someone's words as true if they say it is safe. Always check the MSDS yourself.

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Copyright © by Pele

Can my clothing burn?
Clothing can burn if it comes in contact with excessive heat (hot metal parts on a fire poi set) or the actual flame.

Can flame resistant clothing save me?
No it will not. As an electrician I have seen flame resistant barriers and flame resistant cables catch on fire and burn quite happily. This can also happen with flame retardant and flame resistant clothing. Flame resistant means it will be difficult to set on fire but it is possible, it also means it is likely to self-extinguish when the heat source is removed. Flame retardant is easier to set on fire compared to flame resistant, it should also self-extinguish without the heat source.

Why use flame resistant clothing?
Flame resistant clothing can on catching fire give the wearer extra time to remove the clothing or smother the flame. e.g. dropping to ground and rolling over. Flammable clothing can however be given a flame resistant finish to minimize the risk of catching on fire and slowing the burning process.

What does the fire service use?
The fire service or other dangerous occupations wear expensive industrial flame resistant clothing. These are made from materials like glass, aramid, novoloid, sulfar, and saran. These materials are used in special weaves and combinations to reflect heat and be highly flame resistant. We use a particular weave of Kevlar® (aramid) on fire poi as a medium to soak our fuel onto. The fuel will burn and the kevlar® or kevlar®/glass weave will not as long as fuel remains, although it will degrade over time. Kevlar® on its own will not protect you from the heat.

What makes clothing burn faster?
Fabrics with loose weaves or worn loosely tend to catch fire more easily. This is because there is more oxygen around the fabric to aid the burning process. Fluffy or fuzzy clothes or clothes with dangly bits hanging off them also tend to catch on fire easily unlike smooth not fluffy clothes with no dangly bits. Denim with its heavy closely woven weave tends to burn slower.

What is safe?
Unless labeled as flame resistant or flame retardant all fabrics should be treated as highly flammable. Natural materials in tight weaves without fluff and the thicker the better will however give you more time to put out the flames and will provide you with better protection.

Wear tighter clothing which is less likely to catch against your fire poi or staff as it passes your body and will have less oxygen between them and your body.

When I say "better protection" I mean a few seconds like 3 to 4 sec at best. You clothes could catch on fire behind you and you could be unaware until it is too late. You must have a spotter or safety person watching over you at all times holding a fire blanket* , safer clothing will give them that extra time to put you out.

When smothering the flame be sure to cover the performer so as to push the flame away from and not into their face or air ways.

Once a flame gets hold it will grow extremely quickly even if you are wearing "safe clothing".

*Fire Authorities confirm that "fire blankets" are the best way to deal with human torch fires (i.e. when a persons clothing catches alight).

How can I protect myself further?
Spraying the material with water will remove air from between the weave and hence provide some additional protection.

What about my hair?
You should consider wetting your hair before performing or use a cotton scarf to cover hair.

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Other General Safety Information

Safety check of equipment
Check equipment each time you use it. Check split ring by handle for over stretching check condition of wire and connection to wick. Check ball chain links and all screws. Fire blanket, slightly damp blanket, appropriate fire extinguishers and first aid kit etc. should all be readily available. This will also include checking first aid box is fully stocked and fire extinguishers are pressurized and ready for use.

If you are not 100% sure it is safe then do not light up!

Your personal safety
Wear tight fitting natural fiber clothing. Conceal or wet long hair. Know where all the safety equipment is. Have someone checking for your own safety (eg. you may be unaware that your back is on fire). Make sure the other safety personnel know what to do in case of an emergency. Fire blanket, slightly damp blanket, appropriate fire extinguishers and first aid kit.

Safety of others
Be aware of any local fire bans. Be aware of local fire safety regulations and permits if required. Do not use fire on a flammable surface. Keep others out of the twirling zone. Mark this area and have barriers if possible. Have someone be in charge of keeping onlookers safe. Keep unused fuel well away from the performance. Have fire safety equipment readily available and know how to use it.

Fully submerge kevlar wicking in your fuel. Swirl around a bit and remove. Try not to get the rest of the equipment covered in fuel.

Removing excess fuel
Squeeze excess fuel out of the wick to prevent spraying whilst spinning. Big downward sweeps are another way to shake the excess fuel off but this is not good for the environment or performance area so try and contain droplets.

Lighting the equipment
Always light equipment at its base i.e. the bottom of the kevlar wick. If it's windy, use your body to shield the flame so it doesn't blow out. Turn it so that the wicking isn't just burning on one side. When lighting equipment, make sure that it is a safe distance away from the fuel container

Extinguishing equipment
When the flame gets low and fuel runs out fire will begin burning the wicks instead. So before this happens blow out fire from the bottom of the wicking. If they don't go out after two blows place them on the ground and smother them with a damp towel. When putting the towel over the wicks the flame will be pushed away/out from the source. Make sure the flame is not pushed back to yourself or others. (Do not smother with a very damp towel if that gear needs to be reused later in the performance. In an emergency, USE A FIRE EXTINGUISHER

Do not let the kevlar wick smoulder, as it will not last as long.

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First Aid For Burns

Copyright © 2004 by Lightening

Of all the injuries that fire performers accumulate, burns are probably the most common. This article aims to teach performers how to identify the three main classes of heat burns and the appropriate first aid for each class.

This article is not intended to cover general fire safety nor does it cover chemical, electrical, or cold burns. Please do remember your basic fire safety rules, and also remember that if you catch on fire, STOP, DROP, and ROLL.

Classes of burns

First Degree Burns
A first degree burn is caused by brief exposure to heat. In a first degree burn, the skin is intact, but red and the burned area is painful. Sunburn is a type of first degree burn.

Second Degree Burns
A second degree burn is caused by prolonged exposure to heat or very high temperatures. In a second degree burn, the skin may be intact or it may appear to be partially peeling. It may also appear moist or have a mottled appearance. Any burn with blisters is second degree. The burned area is very painful in a second-degree burn.

Third Degree Burns
A third degree burn is the most serious type of burn and is caused by prolonged exposure to very high temperatures. In a third-degree burn, the skin is burned through its full thickness. The tissues underneath the skin may show through. The edges of the burn are frequently charred. The center of the burned area may not be painful because the pain receptors in the skin have been destroyed along with the skin.

How do I care for a burn?
Regardless of the class of burn, the first thing to do is to STOP THE BURNING! Get the heat source away from the skin and extinguish any flames. Use a wet towel to put out any burning toys that may be tangled and near the skin and work to remove any hot metal from the skin as quickly as possible. Once the heat source is removed, examine (but do not touch!) the burned area to assess the class of burn.

For First Degree Burns
If you have identified the burn as first degree, immediately immerse or run the burned area under cold water. A garden hose works nicely. This forcibly lowers the temperature of the burned skin and stops the burn from getting any worse. Most first aid books say that this should last 20minutes. Don’t use ice!

After the skin has been cooled, do not apply lotions or salves. Leave the skin uncovered and dry. Most first degree burns resolve after 1-2 days. For pain while the burn is healing, put cold, wet cloths on the burned area and use acetaminophen (“Tylenol”) every 4-6 hours or ibuprofen (“Motrin” or “Advil”) every 6 hours as directed on the package.

For Second Degree Burns
If the skin is intact (not peeling) then either immerse the burn or run the burn under cold water for at least 20 minutes to stop the burning. After the skin has been thoroughly cooled, you may apply an antibiotic ointment or cream such as bacitracin or a neomycin/polymixin blend (“Neosporin”). Do not try to burst the blisters.

The burn will usually resolve with minimal to no scarring within 7-14 days, although it may take as long as three weeks. Once the blisters burst on their own, try to trim off the dead skin with fine scissors. This is painless and helps to prevent infection. For pain while the burn is healing, put cold, wet cloths on the burned area and use acetaminophen (“Tylenol”) every 4-6 hours or ibuprofen (“Motrin” or “Advil”) every 6 hours as directed on the package.

If the skin is broken do not immerse in water as this can lead to infection. Cover the burn in a clean, dry dressing (gauze works nicely) and go to the nearest emergency room.

For Third Degree Burns
After removing the heat source, cover the area in a clean, dry dressing. If there is clothing stuck to the burn, do not try to remove it. Because victims of even relatively small third degree burns can go into shock suddenly, call an ambulance rather than taking the victim to the emergency room if at all possible. Third degree burns are notorious for getting infected and prompt medical treatment is required. Failure to receive prompt medical attention can result in gangrene, loss of a limb, or sepsis (infection of the blood, which is often lethal). In particular, a bacterium known as Pseudomonas aeruginosa tends to infect severe burns. This infection is very difficult to treat with antibiotics.

When to seek immediate medical attention for a burn?
If a blister is greater in diameter than 2 inches (4-5 cm), if a total burn is larger in surface area than about the size of a deck of playing cards, for any burn involving a break in the skin (including all third-degree burns), if the burn involves the face, hands, feet or genitals, and if the burn is an electrical or chemical burn.

When to seek medical attention during normal working hours?
If a burn starts to look infected (red, painful, swollen, warm). However, if an area of redness appears around a burn and spreads over a period of several hours, go to an emergency room as this may signify a serious and life-threatening infection. Also, call your doctor if the burn does not seem to be improving after 10 days or you feel the burn is getting worse.

Remember: When in doubt, seek medical attention for a burn. Burns are complicated medical injuries and may require very advanced care for severe cases.

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