Dr Steve Frosdick is a consultant, scholar and independent expert on safety and security at sports grounds who works across Europe.
I interviewed him in the aftermath of the fireworks incident at the recent Champions League match at Celtic Park involving Cliftonville.
Q: Celtic fans recently let off several ‘bangers’ in a section of their home ground Celtic Park during a match. Was this dangerous?
A: Using pyrotechnics in spectator areas is always potentially dangerous. Back in 2008, the Council of Europe Standing Committee on Spectator Violence noted the possible dangers as “burns, the development of toxic products, respiratory problems, fire hazards, temporary or permanent hearing loss, cardiac arrhythmia, etc.” There are plenty of recent examples of these dangers becoming realities, although of course they don’t happen every time a pyrotechnic is used. I would categorise using pyrotechnics as a high risk activity because of the medium probability of harm occurring and the high severity of harm when it does occur. On that basis then, yes it was dangerous.
The particular dangers from those thunder flashes (‘bangers’) would have been burns, injury or hearing loss, all arising from the explosions. I know of football cases where the person lighting the thunder flash has had their fingers or hand blown off or where people standing nearby have been taken to hospital with damage to their hearing.
The three other main types of pyrotechnics are smoke bombs, Bengal lights (hand held flares) and rocket flares (distress signals). The smoke from the smoke bombs is toxic and can cause burning to the lungs, such as in the case of the 15 year old boy who was hospitalised after the Wigan v Aston Villa game at the end of last season. The Bengal lights burn at over 1500 degrees centigrade and can melt flesh on contact – the photographs are horrendous. The rocket flares kill. Just a few weeks ago a 14 year old Bolivian boy was struck by such a flare, fired horizontally across the stands by a Brazilian fan. The rocket entered the boy’s right eye socket and embedded itself in his brain. He died almost instantly.
Q: The unauthorized use of pyrotechnics in stadia is illegal in the UK. Why is this?
A: Because of the clear risks to both the user and to others. It is a criminal offence to possess a firework whilst seeking to enter the stadium or whilst in the viewing accommodation. You don’t have to use the firework to commit the crime – merely having it with you is enough.
Q: What can be done to prevent people bringing pyrotechnics into the stadium?
A: Where it is proportionate to the risk, selective searching at the entrances can help deter and disrupt offenders. But searching alone cannot prevent fireworks. Pyrotechnics can be very small, straightforward to conceal and so easy to miss in a search. Moreover, the number of condoms found on toilet floors after kick-off clearly tells us how the more determined fans bring the fireworks in. Sniffer dogs patrolling the concourses can help deter and sometimes detect, although once a firework has been set off they have the scent and can’t be used anymore. Publicising the sentences given to offenders can also help deter others. Fans should be asking themselves, is it really such a good idea to risk prison, a banning order, failing a future CRB check and facing a life-long increase in insurance premiums for a bit of coloured smoke?
Q: The proponents of the use of pyro by fans say that the club uses these fireworks in organised displays and that they are being hypocritical. Do they have a point?
A: Even organised displays have been known to go wrong and injure people, so pyrotechnics in the stadium are never risk free – but then nor is any other human activity. The question is this; is it better to ban pyrotechnics completely or else to allow the fans to enjoy them through organised displays where the risks have been controlled so far as is reasonably practicable? I prefer the idea of a match organiser liaising with the fan groups and then engaging a professional company to stage an organised display which complements the fans choreographies. Thus the organisers and fans work together to create the spectacle, for example when the players take the field.
Q: Are disabled supporters especially at risk?
A: Yes. Some disabled fans are particularly susceptible to the effects of the toxic smoke. And of course many disabled fans cannot easily move away to escape the fumes. This is a double whammy which puts them at particular risk.
Dr Frosdick is on Twitter at @SteveFrosdick.