Walt Disney Among 62 U.S. Companies to Land Family-Firm Fireworks Waiver

Walt Disney Co. (DIS) is among 62 companies getting a break from U.S. limits on truck-driver work hours that’s intended to help communities put on Independence Day fireworks shows.

The rule waiver allows Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. Inc., based in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, and other operators of July 4 displays to keep drivers on duty more than the federal maximum of 14 hours a day, according to a June 28 notice in the Federal Register.

“We have a very narrow window of opportunity to do our business,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a Bethesda, Maryland-based trade group for fireworks operators. “We don’t get July 5.”

Disney is the only publicly traded company getting an exemption. Most others are small, family-owned businesses that rely on seasonal workers to make the shows happen, Heckman said.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which grants the exemptions, gave them to nine companies for the first time. Disney and 52 others had them renewed.

One company on the list, Zambelli Fireworks of New Castle, Pennsylvania, has staged fireworks displays in New York harbor, Mt. Rushmore, major league baseball games and state fairs, according to the company website. It’s producing July 4th celebrations in Philadelphia, Phoenix, Cleveland, Kansas City, Missouri and 16 other cities.

The rule waiver allows Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. Inc. and 62 other operators of July 4 fireworks displays to work their drivers more than 14 hours a day from June 28 through July 8, according to a notice in the Federal Register. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Close

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The rule waiver allows Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. Inc. and 62 other operators of July 4 fireworks displays to work their drivers more than 14 hours a day from June 28 through July 8, according to a notice in the Federal Register. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Sandy McStay, a Zambelli spokeswoman, referred questions to the pyrotechnics association.

Disney ‘Flexibility’

The association sought exemptions for all members who wanted one, Heckman said. Some companies that don’t put on shows asked to be included on the industry request, “just in case” they needed to exceed the 14-hour workday, Heckman said.

Referring to Disney, she said, “We don’t know why they’re on the list. There are some companies on this request that don’t even need it.”

Disney shoots off fireworks daily at its Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme parks in its resort complex outside Orlando, Florida.

“As an APA member, the exemption gives us flexibility during a period when we’ve added shows for the July 4 holiday, but at this point we’re not planning to use it,” Andrea Finger, a spokeswoman for Walt Disney World Resort, said.

Finger declined to say how many trucks or drivers the company uses for the displays or how many fireworks are consumed.

In its original request for special treatment, in 2004, the pyrotechnics group argued that without exemptions, fireworks operators would have to hire more than one driver to get deliveries set up in time for July 4, which would be “economically prohibitive for these companies.”

Safety Advocates

The truck drivers, who must be trained in shipping hazardous materials, also set up displays for many fireworks companies, Heckman said. The duty-time exemption allows drivers to deliver and set up in several communities, Heckman said.

Drivers still aren’t allowed to exceed the maximum 11 hours a day behind the wheel. The exemption lasts from June 28 through July 8.

Costs would double if additional drivers had to be hired, so a town now spending $7,500 would have to spend $15,000, possibly making shows unaffordable or forcing communities to hold them before July 4, Heckman said.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based alliance of insurance companies and consumer groups, argued in 2009 that the fireworks industry hadn’t backed up its assertions about scheduling difficulties. Research shows that the riskiest period for drivers is after they’ve been doing other work outside the truck and then return to the wheel at the end of the workday, said Henry Jasny, vice president and senior counsel.

‘Extremely Limited’

“You’re forcing these drivers to drive in high-risk situations when they’re tired at night, when they’re carrying hazardous materials,” Jasny said. “That’s a problem.”

The fireworks industry argued there have been no reported accidents since the Transportation Department first granted an Independence Day exemption in 2004.

Including Disney on the exemption list is a “glaring error,” Jasny said. “That raises the question about how many of these companies are really doing what APA is claiming.”

The motor-carrier administration, which regulates truck safety, agreed with the fireworks industry’s contention that there are a limited number of suitably trained hazardous- materials drivers available, said Duane DeBruyne, an agency spokesman.

“The period immediately before, and immediately after the 4th of July, is the one with the greatest demand,” DeBruyne said. “This exemption is extremely limited -- both in practice and in duration.”

Helping America Celebrate

A typical driver would be on the road early in the morning, when traffic is light, set up during the day, help manage the show, and then return the fireworks truck back to the company at the end of the show, the agency said in the Federal Register. If bound by the 14-hour workday, truckers carrying loads of explosives might have to park their rigs in public overnight, the agency said.

Hiring extra drivers for the July 4th period might add $150 per day in costs, or $1,500 to $1,800 for work that takes several days, said Felix Grucci Jr., executive vice president of Fireworks by Grucci in Brookhaven, New York. The company will use about 100 trucks carrying 8,000 to 10,000 boxes of fireworks in all during the holiday period.

“Exemptions help the industry, and when it helps the industry it helps America celebrate the Fourth of July,” Grucci said. “If we’re not paying attention to safety, we’re out of business.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at Bkohn2@bloomberg.net.

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