British Columbia

Trauma survivors plead for Halloween fireworks users to follow rules

People traumatized by war and violent situations are asking residents in Metro Vancouver to consider their plight. At the very least, they would like them to adhere to bylaws that don't allow them to set off fireworks until Halloween night.

A pounding heartbeat and the overwhelming need to run — that's how Alida Fernhout experiences fireworks

Teenagers set off fireworks in East Vancouver Saturday night. People with PTSD are asking for Metro Vancouver residents to follow local bylaws that prohibit fireworks from being lit on any night besides Oct. 31. (GP Mendoza/CBC)

Alida Fernhout was lying in her bed at her home in Vancouver this week when she woke up to the sound of AK-47s. 

"I thought I was in South Sudan and wondering, 'Is my colleague woken up? Did she go in the bunker already? Do I need to go?' 

"And then I opened my eyes and I was in Vancouver."

The sounds she heard weren't gunfire, luckily. It was people in her neighbourhood setting off fireworks — which, to her, sounds remarkably like an AK-47 rifle being shot. 

Fernhout recently returned from spending close to a year in South Sudan, where she worked as a nurse helping children with malnutrition amidst shots fired by government and rebel forces. 

"The rate and the cadence of the fireworks going off sounds a lot like gunfire," Fernhout said. "In the past two nights people in the neighbourhood have really been setting them off all night long."

Alida Fernhout (centre) worked as a nurse in South Sudan for almost a year. She recently returned to Vancouver and has been having trouble with the sound of fireworks, which she says sound a lot like an AK-47 being fired. (Alida Fernhout)

Fernhout and other people traumatized by war and violent situations are asking residents in Metro Vancouver to consider their plight.

At the very least, they would like them to adhere to bylaws that don't allow them to set off fireworks until Halloween night. 

Fireworks regulations vary across the region, with only a handful of municipalities allowing them. But even though none allow them to be set off before Halloween, that doesn't seem to keep revellers from doing so anyway. 

"Intellectually I know that it's not gunfire, but physiologically my body keeps responding to it — that I need to seek safety," Fernhout said. 

For her, that physical response includes a pounding heartbeat, tense muscles, and the overwhelming need to run and hide. 

"And then I start thinking about how deeply that might affect someone who's just come from Syria and whose life was really, really at risk. And I can't imagine what they're going through."

'Your heart just races and you're terrified'

The stress of dealing with the constant barrage of fireworks from her neighbours' backyard is so bad for U.S. army veteran Jennifer Dercole, she's leaving town for the night.

Dercole served in Iraq for the U.S. Army and returned with PTSD. The ongoing onslaught of firecrackers has made Halloween an especially stressful time of year for her. 

"Your heart just races and you're terrified. And you often have flashbacks back to where you were or you just have this overwhelming feeling of anxiety and terror," Dercole said.

"And then when you think about the reason why it's happening to you is because people are just illegally setting off fireworks for their own enjoyment, it kind of makes you angry."

U.S. army veteran Jennifer Dercole said she's going to Bellevue, Wash. for Halloween night because the sound of firecrackers triggers her PTSD. (Jennifer Dercole)

Dercole hasn't called police about her neighbours, although she has considered it. But she doesn't want to trouble officers when they might be dealing with more serious crimes. 

She also considered speaking with her neighbours about the issue, but she doesn't know them well and doesn't want to share her personal situation with them — especially if it means they might disregard it and keep on breaking the law.

"If the only place you feel safe is in your own home and, in your own home, your neighbours are all letting off firecrackers, you can't really go anywhere — except for me, I'm leaving the country," she said.

Dercole suggests replacing private celebrations with a communal fireworks display.

"It shouldn't be worth our stress and causing this much trauma to us just to light off firecrackers. So could they be considerate of that and choose to celebrate Halloween a different way?"

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