Although I’d been thinking about if for a while, Burning Flipside got me thinking more about safety in firedancing. Not so much in the act of firedancing itself, but all the stuff that surrounds it: equipment design, fuel-depot setup, spotters, etc. It also got me thinking more about the community aspects of burner events like Burning Flipside, and indeed, there’s some overlap between these two issues.
I’ve said before that a bad spotter is worse than no spotter, and I say that having seen a bad spotter completely lose his shit at the moment a friend needed help. At Flipside this year, I was the cat-herder in charge of the fire procession before the effigy burn, and I kind of dropped the ball on spotters. I didn’t round up as many as I felt should be on hand, and not all the ones I did round up were known to me at all—meaning some of them might lose their shit when someone needs help. I also was aware that, while it resulted in only inconvenience, not injury, there were some instances at Flipside where the firedancer and spotter were not on the same page about who should be doing what.
To rectify that, I decided to organize a spotter training session. The idea is to solve two problems: to increase the pool of spotters, and to increase the skill level of those spotters. Most folks involved in firedancing are not trained as spotters: someone hands them a damp towel and says “will you be my towel person?” If you’re a fire performer yourself, you’ve got an advantage in that you’ve got a better idea of what to look out for, and should be less likely to freak out about running towards a fire, but there can still be gaps in your knowledge. And in some situations, the people serving as spotters are the people who aren’t (or aren’t yet) firedancers—they are the firedancer’s friend, S.O., or whatever.
This document is an attempt to codify the consensus approach to good practices for spotters, and simply to provide a common point of reference. Even if some of the points are no better than alternatives, spotters and performers sharing the same set of expectations will cut down on problems. Spotters and performers don’t always communicate before a light-up, so a common point of reference is important.
Using that document as a starting point, we held our training session, the first one we’ve had in Austin as far as I know. We had four experienced spinners (myself included) and eight newbies. The flow went something like this: hand out a copy of the notes to everyone, quickly review the contents of it and discuss why certain points are important. Demonstrate (sans fire) most of the “hairy situations.” Then all the newbies paired off and drilled on these situations. After about 20 minutes, we had live-fire drills. Before we did that, I produced a very small torch I with no exposed metal, and used this to stroke down everyone’s arm with flame (after doing my own). My point in doing so was to break down the (perfectly reasonable) wall that most people have that causes them to avoid contact with fire, to demystify the fire, and to show that while it is uncomfortable, it isn’t terribly painful. One participant flinched away reflexively, even after several attempts, and I think in her case this was a particularly useful exercise in that it brought this mental block to the surface.
Then we moved on with the drills. I put on some protective gear I had improvised, and with a set of poi built with easy-to-drop handles and small wicks, got into various awkward positions with fire near my skin. Each person ran in on cue and put them out. Everyone took two tries at each situation, and after we had gone through a couple of situations, Scott took over with much larger wicks. We also drilled on routine wick-extinguishing. It would have been nice to drill on fire-extinguisher usage, but impractical and expensive, since we didn’t have a CO2 extinguisher. But all in all, I’m pleased with how things went. It’s also become clear to me that there are a number of people out there who may not be interested in being fire performers, but are interested in being spotters. That’s pretty cool.
Some of the stuff in the notes might be the source of some disagreement. One point, which I don’t dwell on but which I do consider important, is the chain of command, which goes performer: spotter normally, but spotter: performer in emergencies. A lot of other stuff in the notes springs from this, and it would be the single most important common point of reference for spotters and performers to share. And for that matter, there are some edge cases where the rule doesn’t hold, as when the spotter is very experienced and the performer is very inexperienced.
I think this year was the first year we had a fuel depot for Circle of Fire that was marked, lit, signed, and all that good stuff. We could still do better. Soaking tanks with self-closing lids would be a safety improvement and would also keep rain out (we wound up wasting a fair amount of fuel that got rainwater mixed in). While there’s no product that fits this description exactly, there are “oily waste cans” that would be perfect for the job (though spendy). Wiring them down to a large platform to avoid tip-over would be safer still.
I’ve been making firedancing equipment for longer than I’ve been a firedancer myself, and over that time, I’ve learned a lot about what is safe and what isn’t, likewise what is effective and what isn’t. This is to be expected. Firedancing has been popular for less than a decade, and there’s a lot that nobody would know. When I started out, I made equipment that I assumed was safe and useful because I didn’t know any better. Gradually, I’ve learned what doesn’t work, although this has been mostly an empirical process. To some extent, I can look at certain materials and take a pretty good guess as to whether they can be assembled into a safe piece of equipment, but there are always new and clever ways to abuse a piece of equipment. There’s been some discussion among fire-tool makers of standards for fire-tool safety, and at this point, we haven’t even decided what the parameters for “safe” are, much less the values. As one person pointed out, different people will have different ideas of what is “safe enough”—even among safety-conscious people. And the fire community is notorious for it’s “safety third” attitude.