Let’s be honest, in our industry, we’re prone to over-exaggerate the real dangers of our profession, both to bolster our own perceived skill, and also to discourage amateurs from taking any unnecessary risks or making us liable. But in so doing, we can actually spread false information that may end up doing exactly the opposite of what we intended in the first place.
As an educator, I’ve run across many examples of how misinformation – even when intended to act as a warning – created false expectations on the relative dangers of fire performing. I wanted to share one of these stories to demonstrate just how crucial honesty and integrity can be when educating the next generation of fire performers.
In December of 2009 I released a DVD teaching people how to eat fire. Since then I’ve become the “go to gal” for questions regarding Fire Performance. I do my best to answer every email, tweet and phone call because I feel somehow responsible to these people.
Just before Christmas I got a phone call from a concerned parent whose 16 year old son wanted to start eating fire and spinning poi. She wanted to get some cold hard facts about the real dangers of fire performance since she was contemplating getting him something fire related for Christmas. Now that’s a cool Mom.
These are always the hardest conversations to have since, like any performer, I don’t want to getting sued into oblivion. The first instinct is to “cover your butt”, and the disclaimer “don’t try this at home” has become a kind of metaphysical shield against litigation. I was a teacher at private schools and organizations like Boys and Girls club for years, so I have a good understanding of both how brilliant and how irresponsible teens can be and I don’t want to be held accountable if he turns out the be the latter.
I began by explaining – as best I could – the worst case scenarios. She listened patiently while I tried to lay out the gory details.
“Many fuels we use are slightly toxic and/or carcinogenic”
“Inhaling the flame can collapse a lung or cause a heart attack”
“Exposure to concentrated kerosene fumes will cause pneumonia”
“Burns are extremely painful and can cause nerve damage, disfigurement or even death”
Despite these all being 100% true facts, I felt as though I hadn’t given her the full story. While the dangers are real, fire performance accidents, on average, aren’t very common and with the right safety precautions the relative risks can be minimized. While accidents inevitable occur, the right training and knowledge can drastically minimize the risk of serious damage.
I was personally trained – by an expert, mind you – at the age of 16. I went on to perform about two shows a month without injury or accident till 18 when the combination of my overconfidence and an unfamiliar new trick caused me to accidentally burn the skin off my upper lip. Thanks to the meticulous safety measurements in place I healed quickly, and never posed any threat to the safety of the venue or audience. Since the incident, the company that hosted the event has hired me back for 4 consecutive years.
Age is not always the best gauge of which individuals will have the respect and responsibility to a safe performer. I have worked with all kinds of people, both in my classes and over the years of traveling. I’ve seen first hand the maturity and understanding of select 20 year old students while an other gentleman smoked carelessly over open fuel containers. Older is not always wiser in our industry.
The reality is that fire performance is like any other moderately dangerous hobby, take mountain climbing, dirt biking, or even skiing for example. The difference is that while you run the risk of seriously injuring yourself with these activities, fire performing has the added risk of burning down your house and everyone in it.
I’m concerned that we’re scaring the pants off newbie fire bugs unnecessarily by over-reporting the dangers. The discrepancy between the intense warnings and the reality these people experience when they actually start playing with fire cause many of them to mistrust the actual pertinent safety information later on, and to believe that the precautions outlaid and expected of them are unnecessary or exaggerated.
Freak accidents do occur in fire performance as in life (you can die from a ham sandwich), but for the most part we do tend to exaggerate the dangers of fire performance when speaking to lay people. In doing so, we shoot ourselves in the foot trying to cover our butts by making venues afraid of liability and misinforming new comers and their loving mothers.
In the end I told this concerned woman that it was ultimately up to her to decide if she felt it was an appropriate hobby for her son. I recommended that if she still wanted to buy him something related to fire, to go with a fully stocked safety kit, fire extinguisher and plenty of Burn Free.
I hope I gave her an accurate impression about the real and ever present danger involved in fire performance without giving her nightmares about her house, or her son bursting spontaneously into flames.
Note: With that said, fire performance is a dangerous and life threatening hobby and neither Firepedia nor Carisa Hendrix encourage you to play with fire. Ever ever