‘It sounds like a war zone’: Why a Bucks County fire chief and lawmaker wants more restrictions on Pa. fireworks

  • Ed Mahon, PA Post

Two years ago, lawmakers expanded options for Pennsylvania residents who want to buy fireworks.

Now, some firefighters, local government leaders and lawmakers say the changes have created too many problems.

On July 3, the fire chief for the city of Harrisburg blamed two fires on fireworks.

Five days later, a bipartisan group of state representatives introduced legislation that would place new restrictions on when fireworks can be used, and they would increase penalties for repeat offenders.

The bill’s main sponsor is a Republican state representative and volunteer fire chief from Bucks County.

“It sounds like a war zone here,” said Rep. Frank Farry.

Here’s what you need to know about Pennsylvania’s fireworks laws — and the effort to change them.

Pennsylvania used to have tight fireworks restrictions for residents.

Before the changes, people from other states could buy bottle rockets, Roman candles and other aerial fireworks in Pennsylvania. But Pennsylvania residents could not.

State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, was a prominent supporter of expanding who can buy fireworks.

“What we are proposing is a common sense approach,” he said in a 2016 newsletter. “Pennsylvania is losing money and jobs by limiting the sale of consumer fireworks.”

In October 2017, as part of a larger tax bill attached to the state budget, lawmakers approved the expansion. The legislation passed with a 102-88 vote in the House and a 29-21 vote in the Senate, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed it into law. The measure included a 12 percent tax on consumer fireworks sales, which is on top of the state sales tax and any local sales tax.

A portion of the revenue — up to $2 million — is dedicated to emergency services grants and firefighter training.

The state’s consumer fireworks tax brought in about $408,000 to the state in the 2017-18 fiscal year and $7.8 million in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue.

A billboard in York city, seen on July 10, 2019, highlights a change in Pennsylvania that made consumer fireworks legal for Pennsylvania residents.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

A billboard in York city, seen on July 10, 2019, highlights a change in Pennsylvania that made consumer fireworks legal for Pennsylvania residents.

There are restrictions now. But some firefighters, local government leaders and lawmakers say they don’t go far enough.

Anyone 18 or over can purchase fireworks.

But fireworks cannot be discharged:

  • on public or private property without express permission of the property owner;
  • from or within a vehicle or building;
  • toward a motor vehicle or building;
  • within 150 feet of a home, office or similar building;
  • while the person is under the influence of alcohol, a controlled substance or other drug.

Critics of the fireworks law say the location restrictions are often broken — either intentionally or because people don’t understand the rules.

In York city, Police Chief Troy Bankert said the existing restrictions are difficult to enforce.

“You have to actually see them light it,” Bankert said. “So then if you have a group of five people who are out doing it, you have to actually catch the person that lit it.”

And often, people light the fireworks and leave before police arrive, he said.

Jay Delaney, president of the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association, said his group wants to repeal the 2017 law that expanded who can buy fireworks. He doesn’t think there are any safe fireworks.

But at the very least, Delaney wants increased restrictions. For instance, he thinks people should not be able to discharge fireworks within 500 feet of an occupied structure, instead of the existing 150 feet ban.

He said the fireworks expansion is putting an increased burden on fire departments that are already stretched too thin.

Fireworks caused a fire on a Wilkes-Barre home over the July 4 holiday weekend. There were no injuries.

Submitted / Courtesy of Wilkes-Barre City Fire Department

Fireworks caused a fire on a Wilkes-Barre roof in early July of 2019. There were no injuries.

There have been reports of problems across the state.

In Luzerne County, investigators believe a Tuesday morning fire that killed an 11-year-old boy might have been caused by fireworks, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported on Wednesday.

The article cited unnamed law enforcement sources. A final determination will be made by a state police deputy fire marshal, one of the sources told the Times Leader.

There were other reports of property damage.

 

In Wilkes-Barre, where Delaney is the fire chief, there was a roof and dumpster fire last week, both caused by fireworks.

In York County, the 911 center received 136 fireworks-related calls from July 3 through 7 in 2017, before the law changed, according to county spokesman Mark Walters.

That number increased to 475 calls in 2018 and dipped to 309 calls this year for the same period.

“The calls didn’t stop coming,” York Mayor Michael Helfrich said. “It’s hard for the police to respond when there’s 100 fireworks going off all over the city.”

There’s the safety risk of fires. And then there’s the nuisance of increased smoke, noise and debris.

“It is coming from all directions,” said Hayley Croom, a 46-year-old soapmaker and business owner in York. “It is impossibly loud.”

And the complaints aren’t just in densely-packed cities.

About four miles north of York, retired anesthesiologist Anne Harris said she hears fireworks inside her suburban home all summer long and into the fall.

“These things no longer make the 4th of July special,” said Harris, who submitted comments about fireworks to the Listening Post section. “They make it irritating. And they seem to have become a party item.”

Some lawmakers want more restrictions — but not a repeal

As of Thursday, 25 House lawmakers had signed on to Farry’s bill to add more fireworks restrictions.

Under the plan:

  • Consumer fireworks could not be used between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m. most days with some exceptions for New Year’s Eve, the 4th of July, and days near the 4th of July holiday. On those days, they could be used until 1 a.m.
  • Municipalities would have more explicit authority to restrict the use of consumer fireworks. Farry said the law is not clear about their options now.
  • Penalties for repeat offenders would increase. Currently, people illegally using fireworks can be charged with a summary offense and a fine of up to $100. Under the legislation, if they commit a fireworks violation within one year of a previous fireworks conviction, they will be charged with a misdemeanor of the third degree — instead of a summary offense — and fined at least $500. Penalties would also increase for people illegally selling fireworks.
  • Sellers would have increased requirements for posting the rules for using fireworks.

Farry voted against the 2017 law to expand fireworks in Pennsylvania. But he thinks it’s too late to repeal the expansion.

For one, he doesn’t think there are enough votes to do so.

And, for another, he doesn’t think it would be fair to fireworks sellers who have invested in expanding, building or renting stores.

“We don’t want to turn their world upside down,” Farry said.

Joe VanOudenhove, a managing partner at Sky King Fireworks, said he’s generally supportive of increased restrictions on the use of fireworks in Pennsylvania.

Officials with Sky King, which has six retail shops in Pennsylvania, have been talking with Pennsylvania lawmakers.

“We don’t think that people should be lighting off fireworks at 2 o’clock in the morning,” VanOudenhove said. “We want people using fireworks in a responsible manner.”


Ed Mahon can be reached at 717-421-2518 or at emahon@papost.org.

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