NAFAA Performer Safety Guidelines. (Revision 2.1 annotated)
The purpose of this document is to provide a minimum set of voluntary fire performer
safety guidelines that attends to the concerns of public health and safety as
applied to the performing fire arts. This document is meant to supplement and
clarify the NFPA 160 standards involving 'Group I' devices. It is not intended
to supplant local fire codes, all diligence should be used to discover the
local codes for open flame performance.
The purpose of the annotated version is to bring a deeper understanding behind the specifics of the code, and to show what specific concerns are being met. For example, the NFPA 160 codes mentioned above have thrown people a slider. Okay, the NFPA is the National Fire Prevention Association, they have gathered fire codes from all over the country into their set of codes. Many cities, particularly those just building their own fire departments, are adopting the NFPA codes in total. So, these are likely to be the most common codes your run into. Unfortunately, they are woefully incomplete when it comes to the fire arts (section 160). When a Fire Marshall doesn't have something comprehensive, he'll start making stuff up (you need a paramedic at each corner, you need audience separation in the form of chain link fence, you need open buckets of water for extinguishing tools, etc). By giving them something, anything, to work with, especially something geared towards keeping it cheap for those of us on a budget, and we eliminate a bunch of those expensive, and sometimes harmful, whims.
NAFAA artists should act in a professional manner. They should be capable,
well rehearsed, and safe each time they light up.
I think we can all get behind this. I know, some people like things a little...sparkley... when they spin, or maybe they need a little bit to drink to get in the dancing mood for practice. No sweat, notice the wording, "should not attempt performance" in other words, practice how you like, just be sober and fit for Performance. If you burn yo silly buns during practice, that's your own fault. At least there's no audience to worry about, and your safety problem doesn't become a "public" safety issue, if you know what I mean...
- Performers should not attempt performance under the influence of any judgment
or reaction impairing substance.
- Performers should be in good physical health, with no temporary or permanent
debilitating health issue that could interfere with the planned routine.
Basically, these first two points are saying that you shouldn't be swinging sooty poi in the dark on a busy sidewalk. Cover your wicks with something bright, hang a light on them, or get out of the way.
- Every practice should be performed where the artist can be reasonably
assured of minimal traffic.
- Unlit practice tools should have some visible marking on them to insure
others do not accidentally run into the tools during use.
- Before lighting up, the performer should be ready to spin the tool for
it's full duration. At least three successive practices without operational
problems should be performed before a lit routine is attempted.
- When lit, no new moves should be attempted. If the flame lasts longer
than anticipated, a spotter should assist with dousing the wicks.
- Each performance should be practiced lit several times to verify duration
and capability before a performance is attempted.
Okay, a lot of people ask where the three practices thing comes in. This was more of a generally agreed upon safety net for those people teaching themselves. It wasn't designed to undermine an instructors decision, or restrict people to "legal first light periods."
These last two have caused the biggest stink. "what if I don't HAVE a routine, what if I freestyle?" Well, you don't try new moves and combinations in freestyle, do you? No, you work them out unlit, then try 'em lit. Just because you can do a forward weave doesn't mean you should try a BTB weave for the first time, while lit. You certainly shouldn't try it for the first time in front of an audience.
This is actually where a LOT of fire marshalls get concerned. If you're in flammable clothing, you're more likely to have an aggravated accident. Poi tying up around your hands is bad, dealing with that while your shirt is on fire is REALLY bad. This is the one area they honestly look out for you. Test your materials with a lighter and a three second vertical test. If any part lights on fire, replace it with something better, or get a fabric flame retardant. And never use materials known to be super flammable like feathers or fur.
II) Safety Personnel
- Regular performance costumes should be made of Flame Retardant or High
- If not, each part of the costume should be checked for flammability, and
flame retarded if possible.
- Before the performance, the performer should practice lit in the expected
costume several times to insure safety.
Each performance and lit practice should have at least one spotter ready
to meet fire emergency needs, with additional spotters and guards as needed.
The 2.0 revision introduced the difference between a spotter and a guard. Many performers have been requested to post a large number of spotters for certain shows, particularly, where children, drunks or insufficient barriers may be involved. The Guard is a compromise between the spotter and the high-level barrier. Their primary job is maintaining audience separation, not fire prevention. This way, you can reserve specially trained people as spotters, and pick up extra security guards, or just big friends, as guards.
- Guards provide audience containment duties, keeping audience away from
performance area, fuel station, and spinout zones.
- Fire safety training is beneficial with guards, but not required.
The first three points here are sort of the traditional role of the spotter, and generally the jobs they'll do the most. But this is NOT why fire marshall's request that we have them. They are more concerned about public safety. They don't care if you get your chains tangled, or if it looks better to toss your fan away to a waiting spotter. They want someone there who will attend to the wicks if you get bashed in the back of the head and knocked out. Frankly, I've never heard of it happening, but that's why it's their job to think of things this way. Your spotter is there to protect the public first and foremost, regardless of whatever other jobs you may issue to them. When asked, they need to chant that last bullet point like a mantra, then stumble through the rest of their duties.
- Spotters are in charge of onstage and back stage fire safety including
emergent and intentional wick extinguishing.
- Spotters should be well aware of the various aspects of fire performance
and familiar with the routine to be performed.
- Spotters should be trained in flame extinguishing, response times, untangling
equipment and audience control.
- When needed, the spotter responds to the audience needs, the venue's needs,
then the performer's needs, in that order.
C) First aid training
For some performers, this is a sticky area. I doubt that anyone would argue that first aide training is a benefit for both performers and spotters, it's just not always possible to have an EMT on staff. First aid training, burn care, etc is something that can be looked up online. the certifications courses help, but any info is good stuff. Here's a freebie for you: the biggest step in all burns is to start the cooling process as quickly as possible. So a pint of cool, clean water in your kit can mean the difference between a blistering burn and just an itchy one.
- All spotters should have at least rudimentary first aid training, particularly
- At least one spotter should have strong first aid or medical training.
- For particularly large performances, the venue should provide on-call
ambulance or medical team for the event who should be aware of the duration
of the performance.
This is one of the first things a Fire Marshall looks for when working up a permit. Every venue is required to have a certain set of extinguishers in specific locations for general fire safety. We present a "special" fire safety need. This means that you shouldn't be depending on the venue to have extinguishers hanging in the kitchen for you to use in your show. You're expected to have your own to supplement the existing ones in the venue.
- Intentional extinguishing can be managed with a safety towel of damp
cloth, flame treated cloth, or high heat material.
- Spotters should be dressed with the same care as a performer and should have a safety towel at all times.
- Safety personnel should be equipped with all fire safety devices they have
been trained to manage. Ideally, all spotters and guards should have an
extinguisher available to them.
Now, we're not saying that you should run out to Home Depot and drop $100 on those little $15 ABC extinguishers. Actually, one or two good refillable extinguishers might be better. What we're saying is that if each of your performers has two, then it's better that everyone bring them rather than only having one or two for the troupe. Seriously though, every performer should own at least one, good ABC extinguisher with a current inspection tag on it. People who regularly run safety should own one too. What about CO2? Well, yes, you get more shots out of them, and they're a little more biologically safe, but they're also pricey. Get the ABC as soon as you can afford one, then save up for the CO2 while you perform with the ABC. In the long run, you'll appreciate having the spare, and so will the FD.
NAFAA performers should use well-maintained tools. Not only should they be
constructed to prevent uncontrolled wicks, they should be regularly tested
to insure capability.
A) Wick Attachment
All right, so, let's look at a couple of examples: you have a wire with a loop in the end. You cover the loop with a roll of kevlar and ram a bolt through the kevlar, and through the loop. Approved. Same if you thread wire through the wick and loop. Now, lets say that you have a straight wire rod with a roll of kevlar and wire wrapped around, or a bolt running through the wick, near the main rod. Not safe. You're depending on the friction between the kevlar and the rod to hold the kevlar on. What if you Gorilla Glue the whole thing? Still not safe, the fuels we use are solvents, no glue is rated the temperatures, the stress and the solvents that we put our tools through. what if you put a washer on the end of the rod (let's say welded). Maybe Safe. Is the washer bigger than the roll of kevlar? If so, yes, if not then you're depending on the friction of the Kevlar on the next layer of Kevlar to hold it all together. The layers of kevlar could slip out and unravel the wick when force is applied.
- Wicks should be attached to the fire tool via some hard limiting method.
Wire, screws or bolts should be run through the wick and device. Glues and
friction should not be the primary method of wick attachment for any swinging
- Wicks should be made in such a way as to prevent loss of any part during
use, either by using fireproof materials in construction, or some other
method to prevent partial loss.
B) Handle Attachment
Basically, this is a "don't cheap out" section. Keep wood away from fire. Use load rated materials whenever you can find them (and have them appropriate to the load you'll place on them). Any handles, balls, chaingrips etc. should have much the same thinking process involved as how the wicks are attached. In the end, the real test of a tool is to grab the wick and the handle and give it a good yank, at about the strength needed to replicate the best spin speed.
- Shafted tools (clubs, staff) should either be made of fireproof materials
(metal, carbon fiber, etc) or have a protective covering that extends at
least 4 inches beyond typical flame contact zones (for a spinning staff,
this is 4 inches in either direction of a wick).
- Handles should be attached with much the same care as wicks. Balls or
tethers should not depend on glue or friction to remain on the shaft; some
hard device should be employed to maintain attachment.
- Chain grips should be made of durable materials, or augmented with metal grommets when soft goods (e.g. leather, nylon) are used, and should be vigorously
checked before each use. Any sign of wear should be considered cause for
This section is a hold-over from the first draft when we kinda went a little crazy with the specifics. It served it's purpose at the time and built some awareness, but much of it has been debated nearly to death. For example, cheapie mild-steal split key rings are bad around either heat or stress (both are found when use to attach your chain to your wick). Comparably expensive stainless-steel split rings, probably okay even for wick attachment use. How do you tell the difference? Read the label carefully and always assume the worst. Plastics are almost universally unused, however some of the newest strains could probably take the punishment and heat. These are general guidelines, for the first-timer with little build knowledge, looking to throw together a set of chains at the local hardware store. Follow these and you'll be statistically safer.
- If the device has multiple connected parts or chains, the connectors attaching
all parts together should be of a sealed ring type rated above the maximum
possible stress that can be applied to the device.
- Any connectors that could be exposed to heat should be made of tempered
metal; not plastics, drop forged or spring metal.
- Drop forged connectors (snap connects, et al) should not be positioned
where they could be struck by another metal piece [to prevent shattering].
This is that 'yank test' mentioned above. Seriously now, going through and verifying that your equipment is in good working conndition is the fastest path to a safe show. Most tool problems (ie mechanical failures) could have been stopped before happening with a simple tool check. It takes so little time and does so much. Besides, if ya make a little show of it in front of the Fire Marshall, they get all impressed with you, and put a gold star after your name. :) Sometimes, if you have to do the check in front of the audience, you can impress on them danger of what you do by being meticulous about tool checks and other pre-show safety. It builds the excitement...
- Before each use, the performer should quickly glance over each device
to insure that all parts are in good condition and stable. A quick test
is to grasp each wick and tug it away from the normal point of contact.
- Before each lit performance, special care should be used to insure all
nuts, screws, and wires are tight and secure. Grips and handles should be
thoroughly checked for security and the wicks should be tested thoroughly.
Any sign of wear should be treated as a failure.
Again, "What about doing those cool 'Back To The Future' tracks instead of spinning out?" Yeah, everyone does things differently, but most performances won't have that luxery. This is another hold over from the first edition when we were trying to address the issue of some performers, in scrub grass, pouring fuel on their wicks and spinning within an arms length of the open can. Pretty much everyone has dropped that kind of idiocy, but we felt like it needed to be said ... like the sobriety issue at the beginning. Also, if you're using a low flash point fuel, certain Kerosenes, White gas, gasoline or alcohol, then vapor recovering containers should be used, and sealed when not dipping.
- Tools should be soaked, splashed or basted so that excess fuel can be
completely recovered and sealed or returned to proper containers
- Always spin off excess fuel, in an area free from expected foot traffic
and far from ignition sources, before performing.
- If available, make use of wick attachments to catch fuel before hitting
the ground, avoiding the spin out zone entirely.
- Always mop up oily fuels before leaving. Remove oily residue from performance
area between performers. Treat mops, rags, or other cleaning devices as soaked wicks.
The basics behind fuel safety are to insure that an uncontrolled burn does
not occur, and that the audience and passive safety devices are not affected.
Performers should have MSDS for all fuels used and be familiar with any special
needs for them.
An MSDS is a Material Safety Data Sheet. These are required by the government of all materials used in industrial situations. They may be hard to find, but the manufacturer of EVERY
product sold in the US is required to provide them. They can tell you a lot about the fuels like: it's flash point, it's exact chemical composition, the dangers it poses to you in the short and long term, the best ways to extinguish it, and bunch more. If a fire marshall isn't familiar with the fuel you're using (let's face it, camp fuel ain't common at bars), the MSDS will answer most of the questions about it. Read a bunch of them to get used to the way they word things and to get familiar with them. The one for tap water is interesting.
A) Storage and transport
Heh, the first version didn't include that part for the Canadians, and boy howdy did we get a reminder of what North American means...
- A fuel's original retail container is usually the best choice for storage
- If the original container is too bulky or unavailable, then a sealed metal
container is the best overall choice. Canadian performers should use governmentally
issued containers of the appropriate type.
- Fuels should be kept out of direct sunlight, away from sparks or flame,
and in vapor sealed containers.
The real point to this is: yes, a paint bucket is meant to retain the vapors of white gas (paint thinner), but only really if it's mixed with paint. it does an adequate job as a dip bucket, but it's not meant for long term storage. The original retail containers for the various fuels are specifically designed for long term storage and transport. Other containers that are also designed for fuel storage, or even improved upon from the retail containers, are more than adequate and could be used instead. In fact, a nice UL approved container is probably the better choice for fuel transport, albeit the more expensive option.
B) Back stage fuel
This is where we got the most feedback from the Fire Marshalls. The fuel dipping area is the biggest fire hazard of any performance. First, you've got open fuels, no matter how briefly, that produce volatile vapors. Second, it needs to be reasonably close to the performance area, sometimes directly reachable with a staff throw. Third, if storage and dip containers aren't selected properly and used correctly, a staff, poi, torch, etc flying into the fuel area could shatter glass containers, melt plastic ones, or ignite stray vapors that could flash back to a container.
- All primary fueling should take place in a back stage fueling area.
- Back stage fuel stations should be manned by a performer, guard or spotter
until completely secured.
- Always seal fuel containers and dip buckets when not in use.
- When at all possible, place the fuel area outside, behind a hard wall;
and have a clear corridor from the fuel area to the stage. Never move wet
wicks through the audience without guard escort.
- If you can't have a hard wall between fuel and fire, place a spotter with
a towel between and insure that fuel containers are sealed before any ignition.
- Audience and smoking should be restricted within 30 feet of fuel station.
It doesn't matter how big your wicks are, a tipped bucket of fuel WILL produce a bigger flame. And, if you've got one wick in your fuel area, chances are that there's something else going on that could distract a lone safety. So, a "hard wall" is your best method of keeping the fuel station from the performer. This might mean putting it behind a tree if you're outside, or putting it outside if you're in a theater. Sometimes a hard wall just isn't possible. In those cases, a dedicated safety to "be" the wall - holding a towel, and required to do nothing else.
Either way, that clear walkway to the stage is also pretty important. You want to keep the audience away from any concentrations of fuel. This means both the fuel station and fresh wicks. It my also mean posting a perimeter around the fuel and guards to keep people from smoking nearby.
C) Open Onstage Fuel
This one was really hard to clarify, both internally, and in the various regulations we gathered. Okay, the most common use of "onstage fuel" is if you take a little bucket with you for a fire eating routine. This is NOT the amount of fuel on your wicks. Open fuel assumes a liquid state, free to slosh about in an open container.
- If an onstage fuel reserve is needed, all effort should be made to restrict
quantity and capability of accidental spills.
- Highly stable metal containers with self-closing lids are preferred
- Fuel quantities should be less than 8 oz (240ml).
- Unneeded fuel (i.e. after use) should be removed immediately.
Okay. That established, onstage fuel is extraodinarily dangerous. It should be -on- the stage as for as short a time as possible, and you should have as little as is needed for what you're doing. So, instead of carrying out the gallon bucket, half full of white gas, to pull off a couple of extra vapor tricks, get a 1 pint can, or a solvent dispensing can, or a tiny little bucket imbedded in a nice heavy rock.
If you're planning on doing a lot of things that need open fuel, it's safer to bring out small amounts a bunch of times than it is to bring out one big bucket just once. Remember, most fuels start producing vapors the minute a hot wick is dipped inside.
Each performance should be arranged so that the audience is never in danger
of taking damage from the performer and so that the venue is safe as well.
This is the one that performers hate the most. We realise that with the right crowd, you can safely walk amongst them, drop your head into someone's lap and eat fire so that they can watch from above. But, not everyone is as good at judging audiences as others. So, we err on the safe side. Notice the third point kinda covers that anyway, if a little vaguely.
- Depending on the nature of the audience (seated, drunk, familiar, passing
by, etc), an adequate separation from the performer should be maintained. Barricades may be required for large audiences or certain venues.
- If the performer will be spinning tools, breathing fire, or otherwise
producing effects that are not entirely within their field of vision at
all times, the audience should be sufficiently separated to allow guards
or spotters to intercept audience members attempting to enter performance
area. Usually 15 feet is adequate.
- If the performer will be using a tool that is predominantly within their
field of vision, implicitly under their control (ex. fire fingers), or the
audience does not require excess management (i.e. seated or fenced), then
the performer may come within a few feet keeping in mind audience flammability
The 15' separation is another world though. Really, this is to allow enough space for your guards to catch someone entering your performance area. Kids drunks and loonatics will run right though your performance without any regards for what you're doing, and it's your responsibility to protect them from themselves. It's really that simple (think of the bartenders who now have to cut off people who are dangerously drunk).
B) Flame toxicity
We stress petrol fuels here, but really, just about any fuel is capable of producing carbon monoxide as a burn product. Figuring out what you can do in any given venue is really a matter of experience. This might mean asking to do a lit, dressed rehearsal at the location, with a friend in the audience, before the show. Your friend can tell you when his eyes started to water or if it just got a little stuffy. It might mean you have to cut out your big tools, switch to a different fuel, or cut your performance short to keep the air breathable.
- Petrol fuels burnt on open wicks always produce toxic fumes, smoke, or
other health hazards that are augmented in an enclosed space.
- Petrol fuel burning should be very limited indoors, even in well-ventilated
venues. When possible, use high-proof alcohols in place of petrol fuels.
- For outdoor spinning, semi-enclosed areas with low wind can be as hazardous
as indoor locations.
- Whenever petrol fuels are used, the most purified fuel is preferred: white
gas or lamp oil over kerosene.
C) Performance area
This was kinda basic stuff, but well worth mentioning. Often, fire performers are not the only act on the stage. Props from theatrical pieces, wiring for bands and DJs, or just theatrical riggings can present a myriad of hazards to the fire artist. Similarly, spinout zones, lamp oil residue from breathing or spinning, and fuel station locations can become a problem for other performers. Remember, a single feather in lamp oil can coerse it to produce vapors as readily as white gas. Generally, the fire arts do not mix well with other acts.
- The performance area should be cleared of all flammable materials, or
flammable materials should be treated with approved fire retarding chemicals and tested for combustibility in a safe manner before performance.
- Props and other terrain features should be taken into account when designing
a performance, performers should not be in danger of contact with foreign
- Careful note of sprinkler systems should be made to determine proximity
to performance, possible triggers and other specifics.
- In the case of plant life, handle all flora as though untreated
Passive fire alarms and suppression systems are triggered by a variety of foreign sources. Naturally, open flame performance produces pretty much all of them: CO, CO2, particulate matter, heat, etc. Check the sensitivity before you go on, and inform the fire department before the show that they might get false readings because of you.
North of the Mason-Dixon, it usually isn't too dry. Plant life gets regular water, and things are pretty safe outside. But in southern areas, or during any kind of dry spell, the surrounding foliage can become a serious threat. Overhead leaves, nearby bushes, and scrub grasses can all be, or become, fuel. Overhead is the worst as long exposure to fire can dry out, and make more flammable, even the most waterlogged and green vegetation.
VI) Clean Up
Immediately after each performance, fuel buckets should be closed and sealed,
fuel returned to approved transport containers, fuel stations locked or
removed from premises and any residual fuels mopped up and removed. Hot
tools should be wrapped in safety cloth until they cool down. Any exotic
materials (i.e. flame retardant) should be removed, locked or guarded.
Again, this falls in the "well, duh..." category. But also worth saying. Take your bow, say, "good night, Springfield" and head back. Before you take off costumes, meet the public, or whatever, just make sure your fuel station is buttoned down, the fuel is all sealed and such, and anything flammable is away from the public. Pretty simple, and it saves a lot of stress later. Also, it helps preserve the magic of what we do. If the kids cant get a real good look at our tools, they're less likely to replicate what we do.
http://www.nafaa.org/nafaa_safety.html [Revision 2.1] Updated 5 Jul 2005