WORKBOATS AT WORK | Safety first as Sydney puts on a show

New Year's day fireworks and celebrations in Sydney, Australia.

Nobody does fireworks quite like Sydney. The city’s iconic New Year’s Eve display is one of the biggest public events staged around the world, regularly drawing about a million spectators at viewing sites around the Harbour and a global television audience of up to a billion viewers.

While most of the attention is on the dazzling display lighting up the sky, behind the scenes a huge logistical operation takes place to ensure the new year is brought in safely for everyone involved.

In fact the New Year’s Eve fireworks are just one of a number of special events held on the harbour over the summer that draws a large fleet of spectator craft, including the start of the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race on Boxing Day and the Australia Day celebrations.

All of these events require specific safety management plans to ensure they operate without incident — for people directly involved in staging them as well as for the boaters, commuters and charter-boat operators sharing the harbour.

Banks Events has specialised in creating and coordinating these on- water events in Sydney for decades.

Senior Consultant at Banks Events Adam Huie said over the last 30 years they have seen the event risk analysis and mitigation strategies develop significantly.

“Years  ago safety management was no more than box ticking — in theory we were meeting our obligations, but not in reality, as nobody knew what to do. Today, however, risk management forms an integral part of the overall operational plan,” Huie said.

Brad Hosemans, Chief Operating Officer at Polaris Marine has also seen safety management become integral to all firework displays staged on the harbour.

Polaris Marine supplies the tugs and barges used as floating platforms on the harbour for the several tonnes of fireworks ignited on New Year’s Eve.

“Packing Class 1 explosives onto a barge and then towing it into the middle of a huge crowd and setting them off carries a unique set of risks, one which calls for careful preparation and highly skilled operators on the night,” he said.

Safety first: Barge packed with explosives in Sydney Harbour. Photo: Foti Fireworks

The planning begins well in advance, beginning with making sure that the right-sized barges, with all the relevant permissions, are matched to the amount of fireworks being used. For the four main barges on New Year’s Eve, two tugs are used to hold each barge in position at the end of 50-metre lines. Smaller barges can be strapped up to a single tug.

A coordinator — usually Brad — oversees the positioning of the barges from a high vantage  point, while GPS is also used to ensure the barges are in the right place for the best effect.

Even so, on the night, weather conditions may dictate that the barges have to be moved to account for changes in wind strength and direction.

Then, as soon as the display is finished, the barges must be strapped up again as quickly as possible and moved off the harbour. This is when the tug masters really earn their money — operating  in the dark and surrounded by hundreds of spectator craft, some of which insist on coming closer than allowed. It’s a high- pressure situation which requires great teamwork to avoid incident.

Managing the exclusion zones and vessel traffic on the harbour is a crucial aspect of the display.

Senior Special Aquatic Events  Officer at Maritime, Drew Jones, said on-water safety management requires close coordination between the event organisers and all the stakeholders.

“For example, with New Year’s Eve, the event is owned by City of Sydney but we work in consultation with the ferry operators, commercial vessels, the port authority and the people supplying the event, such as the barge operators and tug companies,” he said.

Drew said the cooperation between government and non-government agencies is a key factor, which distinguishes Sydney when it comes to staging such events.

“There is a really cooperative network between the agencies and we all respect each other’s positions, so we  won’t make decisions for other agencies, but at the same time we’re happy to collaborate on solutions to promote Sydney as a great place to run an event.

“That’s one of the legacies of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney,” he added.

In simple terms, the marine exclusion zone provides a “stage” on which the event organiser can perform, while Maritime has responsibility for controlling what goes on around the zone’s edge, in terms of spectator craft and vessel movements.

Drew said the exclusion zone system has evolved over the years and is now well-understood by the majority of spectators and harbour users. That’s not to say there aren’t always a few rogue vessels that stray too close.

During the event, Maritime runs the Sydney Harbour Operations Centre at its Rozelle headquarters with CCTV coverage of the harbour and radio links with the various  sector commanders in the exclusion zones. If something happens on the water requiring further action and coordination, the centre provides a key point of contact with other government agencies.

Skilled operation: A Foti pyrotechnician inspects the fireworks on a barge. Photo: Adam Huie

Right at the heart of the display are the firework operators who control the firing sequences on board the barges. On the larger barges, they occupy a shipping container from which they oversee the firing plan for each section.

Foti Fireworks has staged the New Year’s Eve displays since 2000. Each year the company amends its own risk management plan, incorporating lessons learned from the previous year, and a detailed firing plan is developed and used to brief all the staff and tug crews.

According to the company’s Work Health and Safety Manager Tim Gray, most of the individual operators have worked on the same barge positions every year, which means they are highly experienced when it comes to assessing risks and applying pre- arranged mitigation strategies as they arise during an event.

“Things can go wrong at an individual firing position and there are also things external to a firing position that can affect it. Knowing what you have to work with inside the exclusion zone, the type of platform you have and the type of fireworks display you are delivering, allows you to make decisions on the fly,” he said.

If a stray boat enters the exclusion zone, for instance, the firework operators use laser distance finders to measure  how far away it is and, depending on the conditions, whether or not it poses a risk. Once the risk is identified, Roads and Maritime Services and Water Police can quickly move in to resolve it.

If the display needs to be stopped, Foti Fireworks uses a software firing system that allows for individual firing sections to be shut off until a problem is fixed and then restarted in sync with the music. There is also a kill switch to stop the display completely if necessary.

By allowing individual operators to assess and mitigate risks in their sections, Foti can ensure that the show always goes on.

Tim agreed that the cooperation between event stakeholders, in terms of safety set-up and management, has set the standard for other displays around the country and even globally.

‘Sydney has become the benchmark for all of our operations,’ he said.

So next New Year’s Eve, when you sit back to enjoy the pyrotechnic displays over Sydney Harbour, raise a glass to the dedicated marine professionals working behind the scenes to ensure that the new year arrives safely for everybody involved.

Source: Australian Maritime Safety Authority Working Boats, January 2020. By Simon Enticknap

Simon Enticknap

Simon Enticknap is a Sydney-based freelance journalist who has written numerous articles about recreational boating and commercial vessels in Australia.