FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Dec. 29, 2016) - Every year, people around the world gather to celebrate New Year's Eve. Many of these celebrations include large crowds, concerts and extravagant fireworks displays. In the Philippines, we have a number of New Year's traditions such as wearing polka-dotted clothing, serving round fruits and placing coins on every window and door. Round items are believed to bring prosperity in the coming year. Of course, fireworks are also a big part of our tradition.

I remember celebrating New Year's as a child with my aunts, uncles and cousins on my father's side. There was always an enormous amount of food for everyone to gorge themselves on until the next morning. In addition, we followed the old Filipino tradition of celebrating New Year's with firecrackers. Chinese immigrants brought firecrackers to the Philippines, as well as the belief that the noise from the explosions drives away evil spirits. That tradition continues today.

Filipinos start lighting firecrackers a few hours before the 10 p.m. mass. At 11 p.m., mass ends and even more people head out to shoot off their firecrackers. Ten minutes before midnight, family members and friends will gather outside of their homes to welcome the New Year. Every child eagerly awaits the New Year, remembering to jump several times at midnight - a tradition believed to make people grow taller. Still, the fireworks are the major draw.

Unfortunately, behind these traditions is the danger of using fireworks. Hospitals in the Philippines routinely begin seeing fireworks-related injuries around Christmas. Last year, the Philippine Department of Health reported 929 cases of fireworks-related injuries. The severity of those injuries ranged from second-degree burns to the loss of fingers or entire hands. Many times these more severe injuries result from the use of illegal fireworks that contain a significant amount of propellant.

Various Philippine government agencies work hard to arrest and punish those who sell illegal fireworks. However, it's difficult to find every offender. In an effort to make New Year's celebrations safer, some municipalities have banned the use of fireworks within the city limits. In addition, the Department of Health began promoting the use of alternative noise-making devices, such as musical instruments, to drive off the evil spirits.

I've noticed many places in the United States sell fireworks year-round. Fortunately, most reputable dealers only carry fireworks that follow strict manufacturing guidelines. Nevertheless, that doesn't guarantee patrons will follow the instructions for safe use. For example, some people enjoy lighting firecrackers or cherry bombs and holding them in their hand as long as possible before throwing them - sometimes at each other!

Even sparklers, which many consider a safe firework, can be dangerous. Sparklers can burn up to 1,800 F, and the stick remains hot long after the flame goes out. Still, some parents will hand their child a sparkler without a second thought. They just don't seem to understand what can happen with these unsafe practices.

This New Year's Eve, make sure to bring some common-sense to your celebration. Fireworks may be a tradition, but they are also dangerous - especially in the hands of the careless or inexperienced. Rather than taking a chance on a permanent disability injury, just leave the colorful explosions to the experts and attend a professional public fireworks display. After all, isn't it more important to ring in the New Year celebrating with friends and loved ones instead of sitting in an emergency room?

Did You Know? Current requirements for large public or commercial fireworks displays can be found in Department of the Army Pamphlet 385-62 (paragraph 2-13) and National Fire Protection Agency Document 1123, Code for Fireworks Displays. For personal use of fireworks, some generally accepted safety rules include:

• Read and follow the instructions on how to use the item.

• Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy in case of fires.

• Maintain adult supervision.

• Have a designated shooter.

• Do not drink while initiating fireworks.

• Use eye protection when shooting fireworks and do not let any part of your body cover the fireworks.

• Fireworks should only be used outdoors.

• Never throw or point fireworks at another person.

• Do not handle or try and relight duds. Wait 20-30 minutes, soak the duds in water and then properly dispose of them.

FYI - Before spending a small fortune on fireworks this New Year's, ensure they are legal to possess and use in your city and state. The National Council on Fireworks Safety's website is a good source of information on state fireworks laws. You should also always ask your local fire or police department if fireworks are legal in your area. Although fireworks may be legal in your state, there may be reasons, such as a burn ban due to dry weather, why their use is prohibited in some areas. For more information, visit www.fireworkssafety.org.

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