Fireworks Site Layout & General Advice
How to layout and plan your fireworks display.
Before going into specific sections for each type of firework I’ll run over some more general considerations for setting up your display safely including where your fireworks should be situated in relation to your audience.
Table of contents:
As entertaining as they are, fireworks are still explosives and need a suitable safety distance between them and your spectators. You need to ensure this minimum distance is met, with extra margin for error where possible. The resulting area between the front line spectators and the first fireworks is called the safety zone.
If you’re very new to fireworks, you may not appreciate that another safety distance is required on the other side of the fireworks – for the fallout. Fallout can include spent card casings, soot, embers and rocket sticks. This no-man’s land behind the fireworks is known as the fallout zone.
Between the safety and fallout zones is where your fireworks will be set up. This is known as the fireworks zone. Within this zone, care needs to be taken where you set each type of firework up, something which will be covered later in this section.
Finally, no firework display would be complete without some spectators, and not surprisingly they’ll be standing in the spectator zone (if they’re not, you’re in trouble!).
Let’s delve into each of these four areas in more detail.
The safety zone
The distance between your fireworks and spectators is largely determined by the classification of the firework which will, in turn, stipulate a spectator distance on the label.
Consumer fireworks – referring to bigger items here and not novelty or indoor items – are classified as Category F2 or Category F3 fireworks. Category F2 fireworks will have a safety distance of at least 8m and sometimes 15m or 20m (check each label individually) and Category F3 fireworks will have a safety distance of 25m. You can read more about these classifications in my Firework Categories & Safety Distances article.
These distances should be regarded as the minimum and if you have the room, use that extra space. Some 8m and 15m F2 fireworks in particular are very powerful. If you have 25m or more and are using a mixture of F2 and F3 fireworks, set all of the barrages and rockets up at 25m+. That is to say, don’t put the 8m ones at 8m, the 15m ones at 15m and so on. Put them all at the longest distance. The only types of fireworks in a mixed selection that should be considered for situating closer (still observing the minimum distance) are wheels and fountains which do not fire projectiles and could look too small at longer distances.
As for how far away to put the bigger items if you have the room to do so, consumer fireworks still look great at 30m, 40m and even 50m or more. Every extra metre you add helps to mitigate the risk to your audience in case of problems.
A common question from beginners is: “If my firework has a 25m spectator distance does this mean it must also be 25m from houses, trees or other structures?”. The answer to this is no. The safety distance refers only to people. However do use common sense and take into account what fallout will come down and whether this poses a danger to any nearby building. It would be a bad idea to fire cakes right next to a thatched cottage during a dry spell or immediately next to a marquee for example.
New for CE fireworks (which replaced the old British Standards) is a “retire immediately to” distance on some labels. This refers to the firer and is less distance than to spectators. The reason the retire immediately distance is often less than the spectator distance is because of the assumption the firer will be wearing protective gear such as googles, a hat, gloves and so on.
The fallout zone
Fireworks create fallout and so a zone to the rear (or side, if the wind is blowing in that direction) of your display should be reserved for this debris.
Fallout can include:
Rocket sticks which will always return to earth and in many cases with parts of the plastic head and motor. Rockets, particularly the larger ones, are the most problematic in terms of debris as they can fly some distance before returning to the ground. They can also be unpredictable in terms of direction of travel, especially in wind. Really you should only consider firing the bigger F3 rockets in a suitably large field; built-up areas are not ideal for this type of firework.
Card and plastic casings from cakes and barrages are much less of a risk and are mostly a litter problem. That said, occasionally some can still be hot and occasionally some embers may reach the ground, so it is best these can fall into a reserved area. This type of debris carries for less distance than rockets, typically as far as the wind will take them plus any angle on your fireworks. If firing in a built-up area then some of this may fall into a neighbouring garden which is why it’s useful to notify your neighbours and have their cooperation.
Card discs and cellophane from cakes and barrages is little risk to anyone and mostly a litter issue in and around the firework area.
Soot and sparks from fountains and wheels won’t get anywhere near your spectators (if you are firing in winds strong enough to blow sparks 25m horizontally you have far greater problems on your hands!). However they can pose a cross-ignition risk to other fireworks so give this type of firework some space.
The fireworks zone
This is where all the action takes place, the fireworks zone! Here you’ll set up and fire your arsenal.
Ensure you have enough space to:
- Move around the fireworks without having to jump over (or trip over) other fireworks.
- Move to a safe distance after lighting each one, without coming into the path of one already going off.
- Accommodate all the firers without bumping into each other.
- Structure the fireworks with the bigger ones at the back.
- Have an escape route in case of problems.
- Set up the fireworks so they are not too close to each other.
The fireworks zone should preferably be a flat and firm lawned surface. A playing field is ideal. A hard surface is more of a problem because it will require more time and effort to secure the fireworks, but it is not impossible. I’ll cover the specifics of securing your fireworks in the individual setting up fireworks pages including on concrete and sandy beaches.
There should be no overhead obstructions such as trees or cables. These can deflect the flight of a projectile or rocket.
For bigger displays try and situate the firing area where there is good access for you and your equipment. You do not want to carry fireworks, tools and wooden stakes hundreds of yards while you are setting up.
Layout within the fireworks zone
It’s important within the firework zone to take some care where you position each type of firework. This is a suggested layout:
The idea is to put the most powerful fireworks at the back and the less powerful near the front. This type of layout adds some extra space between the bigger items and the audience.
You’ll note that rockets are at the very back, this is because their fallout is the most dangerous of all. Although they’ll be angled slightly so they fly over the fallout zone, not every flight is perfect (especially in gusty winds) and this extra distance is recommended for added safety. It’s also handy to have a dedicated firer for rockets particularly if you’ll be firing from reloadable racks. Putting him/her at the back gives them plenty of room to manoeuvre.
Lancework, fountains and wheels all need to be at the very front as they’re ground-based items. However be sure to space them far enough apart that they don’t cross-ignite either each other, or your main fireworks behind.
I also recommend using the layout of your fireworks to reflect the running order as this is often easier than trying to follow a written list, especially in the dark.
For example, have a look at how these cakes are set out:
Starting with cake 1, the firer lights this and then moves across to cake 2. This will take them a safe distance away from cake 1 while it is going off, and in the right place for the next firework. As cake 1 is finishing, the firer lights cake 2 and moves over to cake 3, and the process is repeated through the sequence.
The “safe distance” in this case should be the “retire immediately to” distance stated on the label if you’re an inexperienced firer (this is less than the spectator distance). However once you get some experience firing and know what to expect from fireworks and providing you are kitted out in good quality PPE you can look at reducing this distance.
If you have more than one firer, each firer can have their own section of fireworks set up like this.
In the display itself, all you have to worry about it getting to the next firework. The sequence is already laid out!
Numbering your fireworks is an alternative approach and can also be helpful as shown in the photo below. This was for 100+ fireworks at a review night and made lighting the correct one easy.
If you need a prompt at any point (e.g. to break away from the line and go and set off a rocket or firework in a different area), use whatever method will work best for you, such as a gap in the line, a visual marker like a glow stick or a printed running order.
On the day you’ll also need to take into account wind direction. Ideally the wind should be blowing towards the fallout zone. You may need to move things slightly to take this into account, or extend the safety distance to compensate. At some venues it may be impossible to have the “perfect” wind direction blowing from front to back. Less desirable is a side wind, but this can be compensated for by having a larger safety and fallout zone down wind. I’ll cover this subject in more depth in my Coping With Bad Weather guide.
Fireworks layout for remote and electrical firing
If you are firing your fireworks remotely using an electronic firing system, follow the same general advice above with respect of putting the bigger fireworks near the back. However, within each group of fireworks that are wired to a module or firing system, the positioning of these will be slightly different to firing by hand.
First, it is no longer a requirement to place your fireworks in lines or to stagger them, since you won’t be anywhere near them and won’t need to move between them. Second, you can have them closer together, though still observe some separation.
Usually then, you will end up with fireworks surrounding your firing module. The exact spacing is largely dependent on how long your igniter leads are.
If you have any special firing requirements, such as lighting things either side of your display area, you would space these out using igniters of the required lengths. Consumer e-matches and Talon igniters are usually available up to 4m in length however you can extend any igniter with shooting wire and connectors (a full explanation of firing systems, how they work and all about the various igniters can be found on the Lighting Fireworks Remotely page).
The spectator zone
Having set out your firework and fallout zones, you then need to establish the spectator area. This must be properly marked – and marshalled – for large public venues. For smaller garden displays, ensure the audience is aware of where to stand.
Ensure the spectator area has good access both in and out (in case of any emergencies).
The "perfect" venue
Putting all the above into operation results in a “textbook” site map. You’ll see something similar to this in many firework catalogues:
In this case the safety zone would be at least 25 metres wide all round (assuming the use of Category F3 fireworks), the firework zone about the same, and the fallout zone up to 50 metres.
In practice, the 100 metres or more from front to back means this set-up is only achievable for bigger events where you have the luxury of a large field to stage the display.
Bigger public venues
For bigger displays, site surveying is vital. Here are some more tips when assessing land for a public or larger display:
- Ensure you know who actually owns the land and you have their consent to use it for a firework display.
- Check you have enough room for the fallout zone, the firework zone, the safety zone, and the spectator zone. Ensure there are no overhead obstructions in the firework zone.
- Bear in mind that if your display is to end an evening of other entertainment (e.g. a carnival or fair), the spectator zone will be adjacent to the other activities. Make sure when you survey the site you know where all the other activities will take place and base your layout around that.
- Ensure the area for the display will be available only to you and that you will have access in the morning and afternoon prior to the display, not just the evening (ideally you need to set up bigger displays during the day). Make sure the area will not be shared with anyone else, this is an important safety point.
- Check with any organisers if they will provide poles and equipment to rope off the safety zone. If they won’t, it becomes your responsibility. The area needs to be roped off before you start setting up, not during or after.
- Also check to see if the organiser will provide any sort of marshalling or safety staff to police the crowd. If not, that’s another responsibility for you.
- Check for easy access (in and out) of the spectator area and the firework area.
- It’s worth checking the surrounding area too. Look for farms, kennels, hospitals or any other establishment to whom noise could be a problem. If there are any, contact them to advise them of the display and try and resolve any objections.
- Make sure the land owner doesn’t mind the odd bit of digging up when you stake out the fireworks.
- Make sure there are no structures (e.g. sheds, pavilions, glass houses) in the fall out zone.
- Public liability insurance is strongly recommended and check the small print for any clauses applicable to your venue (if any).
This list is by no means exhaustive, and there is certainly a lot to think about when hosting a big display, but the tips above should give you a good starting point.
One final point, if you’re displaying for a public event, be sure to stipulate from the outset that the display can only go ahead if weather conditions on the night are safe, and that YOU will decide whether this is the case. It’s worth explaining too that the setting up of the fireworks on the day is not a guarantee that the display can be fired at the due time. You reserve the right to postpone the start time if you feel it necessary, or to modify the contents of the display (e.g. no big rockets).
The back garden
There’s no denying the magic of a back garden display and the atmosphere it can create, but safety is just as important in a private display as a public one!
The important point is that safety distances must still be observed. That means if your garden is less than 25m, you shouldn’t be using Category F3 fireworks. If your garden is less than 8m that also rules out Category F2 fireworks leaving you with just sparklers and novelty items.
Remember if you have 25m+ you should still set up your F2 fireworks at the F3 distance for added safety margin.
Another important consideration is what’s going on in other gardens. I think it’s safe to say that most gardens in the UK, particularly in towns and cities, back on to other people’s. Whilst your fences, hedges and walls might well mitigate any serious problems (a firework going off on the ground, or coming loose from its fixings), it is still good practice to apply the safety distance in all directions, so beware the possibility of people in other gardens being too close to your fireworks; this scenario can largely be avoided by chatting to your neighbours about your intended display. This will give them the options either to watch from a safe distance in their own gardens, or why not invite them over so everyone can watch safely from yours?
Clearly the longer and wider your garden is, the more options you will have for setting up safely. If you are lucky enough to back a field this is even better – but do check what’s in it. Firing next to a cornfield in the height of summer during a drought is not a wise decision. Be careful too if you back a public space such as a park – this should not be considered a safe area for fallout given that anyone could be walking through it.
Other things to watch out for in the back garden:
- Make sure the firework area is tidy and free from things you might trip over.
- Give yourself room to get away in case of problems (i.e. don’t get trapped in the corner).
- Cover any fish ponds in the firework or fallout areas.
- Although back garden displays can be informal, please ensure the audience remains in the spectator area during the display.
- If you’re starting with sparklers use these well away from the other fireworks.
- If you’re setting up during the day please ensure no inquisitive children or pets can access the fireworks – this applies to after the display too.
- If the weather’s really bad (e.g. windy and in the wrong direction), don’t be pressured into firing anyway. Save it for another day.
If you don’t have the space
Two common space related problems are:
Lack of fallout zone
In this case ensure you use fireworks with little or no fallout. Avoid large rockets and stick to smaller cakes and candles. However if you can’t afford to risk any fallout at all, you’ll have to stick to just ground based fountains and wheels.
Lack of safety distance
If you can’t get 25m between the audience and your fireworks, drop the Category F3 fireworks and stick to Category F2, providing you do have 8m or 15m. It’s that simple. An F3 firework viewed from say 10m away is exciting for the first few seconds then rather worrying as debris rains down on your audience. They won’t thank you for it. Neither will the hospital!
Don’t risk becoming a firework injury statistic. Letting off huge Category F3 fireworks in tiny gardens is highly dangerous. Do you really want to be remembered as the person who blinded your friend’s son or daughter? I hate sounding like a killjoy, but fireworks are not toys and need to be respected.
Now you’ve sorted out your venue and are raring to go, there’s some final groundwork to do.
Think about who to notify about your display
For bigger events, or public shows, you should inform the police and fire brigade (call their local offices as listed on their websites, not 999!). If you’re within a few miles of an airport (or you notice overhead traffic when site surveying) contact the relevant airport. If you’re displaying on or near the coast and are firing larger items (particularly red or orange), be sure to notify the coastguard too. You don’t want display rockets being mistaken for flares. For garden or private displays, notify neighbours and anyone else nearby who you think may be affected by the noise. It is recommended this is done before you buy your fireworks in case any serious objections require a change of inventory (e.g. quieter fireworks, or no rockets). Check out my Responsible Fireworks Use guide for more help on this subject.
Think about fireworks insurance
Public liability insurance can give millions of pounds of cover and can be arranged on a per-display basis. It should be considered a matter of course for public events. It will cover you for injury to a member of the public, or damage to property. Read more about Fireworks Insurance.
Think about how many firers you’ll need
Do this well in advance because you’ll need to make sure people are free on the night, and conduct any training you feel is necessary if it’s a public event. Remember you may need help setting up (for big displays a minimum of two people are required) so check who’s free that afternoon too. Try and have a back-up on call in case of last minute drop outs. It’s possible to fire big displays on your own if you’ve spent some time setting things up properly, but you’d have to do an incredible amount of time consuming preparation. Best to get some help if you can. If you need extra help such as marshals for the crowd, arrange this well in advance.
For further setting up help, have a look at my other setting up guides which go into specific details for each type of firework. You should also check out the Coping With Bad Weather article for advice on how to waterproof your fireworks.
After setting up comes the best part of the night of course, firing. I have a complete section on this too (of course I do!).
If you’re a beginner to fireworks, new to UKFR or feeling out of your depth at any point then go back to basics first and check out the Beginners Start Here! article.