Spotter workshop notes

Purpose of this document

The following document is intended as a supplement for spotter training. It is not intended as a substitute for practical training, but as reinforcement and background information. See A spotter training lesson plan for tips on conducting your own training session.

It is intended to provide a baseline of shared expectations between spotters and performers in order to minimize miscommunication, and to document good practices for spotters.

General comments

As a spotter, you do not sit back and enjoy the show. You pay attention to all the factors that might result in a problem, try to anticipate problems, and observe the performance carefully, trying to spot problems as soon as they happen. These factors include all the issues mentioned under “scenarios” as well as the performer’s clothing and equipment, the terrain and surroundings, the moves the performer is doing, and whether the performer just seems to be having a bad day.

You will need to make snap decisions about whether and when to intervene with a performer in trouble based on your reading of the situation, of the performer, etc. Advance communication is very helpful. Communication in the moment is critical.

Your priorities for who/what to protect are, in order, Audience, Venue, Performer. This point is especially important to fire marshals.

Always take your lead from the performer and do what the performer asks—until the performer gets into a situation where you need to take charge. When that happens, you need to act swiftly and decisively.


Spotters will typically operate in several different situations, each of which has a different mix of relevant factors:

  • The crowd: How dense? Will they interfere? Will they be mentally altered?
  • Advance communication with performer: Can you work out what you expect of each other in advance?
  • Acquaintance with performer: Do you know this person, his expectations, skill level, etc?
  • Skill of performer: Does this guy know what he’s doing?

Spin jam

  • Audience: Typically low-key, helpful, other fire people.
  • Advance communication: Easy, but doesn’t always happen.
  • Acquaintance with performer: Varies, but usually good.
  • Skill of performer: Varies. This is the scenario where even very skilled performers are most likely to try out dodgy moves.

Backyard party

  • Audience: Typically low-key and friendly.
  • Advance communication: Easy, should happen.
  • Acquaintance with performer: Varies.
  • Skill of performer: Varies.

Pro gig

  • Audience: Frequently intrusive and excited. May crowd the exit lane, spotter, and performer. Probably includes altered members.
  • Advance communication: Must happen.
  • Acquaintance with performer: Usually good.
  • Skill of performer: Varies.

Burner event

  • Audience: Occasionally intrusive and excited, but often well-behaved. Will include altered members.
  • Advance communication: Unlikely.
  • Acquaintance with performer: Varies.
  • Skill of performer: Varies.

Other risk factors

Take note of these factors before the performer lights up. Point out any concerns to the performer, and if possible, offer to help correct the problem.

  • Clothing: Anything with fur, feathers, or fringe (this includes cutoff jeans). Synthetic materials, including pleather and PVC. Anything gauzy.
  • Equipment: Heavily worn gear; poi wicks attached with key rings or trigger snaps; ball-chain made of aluminum (colored ball-chain is a dead giveaway) or plastic; any wick held together with baling wire; any other tools made of obviously flimsy materials.
  • Terrain & surroundings: broken ground that a performer might stumble on; smooth surfaces that might become slick from cast-off lamp oil; low-hanging tree limbs or other overhead obstructions; dry vegetation.
  • Performer: performer is mentally altered, distracted, inexperienced, suffering stage-fright, etc.

Hairy situations

These are situations where you may need to take charge. Many of these revolved around poi—poi are the most popular firedancing tool, and result in the greatest number of problems for that reason. These points also hold for meteors, which present the same problems as poi, but may be less relevant for staff, baton, and other tools.

Comments on techniques

When you move in to deal with a problem, you need to communicate with the performer. This should be in single words. Even if you have nothing else to say, announce that you are “HERE” as this will help the performer orient on you. Speak loudly: a fire can drown out a normal speaking voice.

When dealing with tangled poi, there will frequently be one wick that’s closer to the skin and needs to be extinguished, but if the other wick has a large flame, it can relight the first before you’ve had a chance to untangle it. In situations like these, order the performer to “DROP” so his wicks hit the ground. This puts both wicks on the same level, and less likely to relight each other.

Poi gets tangled — on skin

Move in immediately. Order performer to “STOP.” Cup wicks with towel, lift up and away from skin, attempt to place towel between skin and wick. Extinguish wicks. Untangle chain. Assess burn, treat as appropriate.

Poi gets tangled — near skin or behind back

Prepare to move in. Performer may be able to untangle, but may need help, and will be maneuvering to avoid contact with flame. Move in when performer calls for help, or when your judgment of the situation calls for it. If you can cup wicks with towel while performer is moving, do it. If not, order performer to “STOP.” Cup wicks with towel and keep wicks above and away from the performer’s skin as much as possible. If practical, untangle chains while lit; if not, extinguish first. You may need to tackle the performer if repeated “STOP” orders don’t work.

Poi gets tangled — off skin

Prepare to move in. Performer can often untangle, but may need help. Performer is probably not in immediate danger of injury. Move in when performer calls for help. Cup wicks with towel. If practical, untangle chains while lit; if not, extinguish first.

Hair on fire

Move in immediately. Order performer to “STOP.” Performer should stop and assume arms-out posture. Pat down with towel to extinguish flame.

Clothing on fire

With small fires, do not move in immediately: many clothing fires die out quickly. If fire persists more than 2-3 seconds, alert performer by shouting “SLEEVE” or equivalent and prepare to move in—the alert ideally should be a single word indicating what is on fire. If performer does not extinguish fire and fire persists 3 more seconds, or if fire spreads quickly, order performer to “STOP.” Performer should stop and assume arms-out posture. Pat down with towel to extinguish flame.

Poi goes flying

Performance should stop. If performer continues, order performer to “STOP” as you hunt down the wayward wick and extinguish it.

Audience member enters fire circle

Move in immediately. Tell audience member to step outside fire circle. If this is not instantly effective, physically remove him from fire circle. Call for help if needed.

Fuel container fire

If fuel container has close-fitting lid, place lid on to smother. If not, lay sturdy towel on top to smother. If towel is not effective, use fire extinguisher.Do not douse with water. Take care not to tip container.

Ground fire

Grass, wood chips, etc, can occasionally catch fire. These fires generally die out quickly, but cannot be ignored. Performers should be aware of them and stamp them out quickly. If the performer does not stamp it out, and the fire persists more than a few seconds, wait until the performer has moved away and stamp it out. Keep an eye on that spot in case embers flare back up. In the unlikely event that the fire spreads, order performer to “STOP.” Clear the circle, smother the fire if possible, extinguish with extinguisher if not, and take whatever other actions the situation demands.

Firebreather: face on fire

Firebreathing is the most dangerous fire art. A change in the wind can give the breather life-threatening injuries within seconds, and there are simply a lot of problems associated with firebreathing that a spotter can’t help. Face fires are relatively common, and the spotter can help. If the breather does not put it out himself immediately, move in immediately. The proper technique is to move your towel up the face in a wiping motion.

Normal situations

Extinguish wicks

Lay towel on ground for performer to lay wicks on. Completely cover wicks, wrap towel tightly around wicks, and smother thoroughly. Take care to avoid hot metal hardware, which may be dangerously hot even through one layer of towel.

When dealing with many fire performers at once (especially in a choreographed performance), you will need to use a “slap and go” approach in order to clear the fire circle quickly.

Large or complex tools can relight themselves spontaneously, and may require multiple towels and/or each wick smothered separately.

When extinguishing fire fingers, isolate the hands from the wicks as you extinguish. Wrapping from the tips down can funnel the heat towards the hands.

Light wicks

Light from underneath, with lighter. Some fuels do not ignite readily. Back off once lit and take towel.

Monitor fuel depot

Busy fuel depots should be inspected as often as circumstances permit. Top off empty soaking tanks. Remove empty fuel canisters and set them aside uncapped. Take note of equipment that seems to have been left behind, and set aside.


  • Towel. Should be dense and fairly large. Do not use thin, threadbare, or small towels. Should be kept slightly damp, not dripping wet. Should be used folded over to protect your hands and maximize smothering effectiveness.
  • Duvetyn blanket. Alternative to towel, useful when water is scarce.
  • Fire extinguisher. Should be “ABC” type. Always shoot low (at the base of the fire), avoid the face.
  • Water bucket. Actually not very useful in emergencies, but good for wetting towel, cooling minor burns, etc.


Fuels typically used by fire performers are White Gas (naphtha) and Lamp oil (paraffin).

  • White gas: Ignites readily and evaporates quickly. Burns hot and bright. Transfers easily, but transferred flames also burn out quickly.
  • Lamp oil: Ignites stubbornly and evaporates slowly. Burns slightly less brightly. Transfers will be sticky, burn longer, and will be more painful. Slung-off fuel will stick on hard surfaces, be slick, and can be a hazard to good footing.