Fire officials seek overhaul of Pennsylvania fireworks law

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Legally purchased fireworks set off illegally is an all-too-common occurrence in the commonwealth, according to first responders across Pennsylvania.

Angry neighbors have also been set off and have made their displeasure known to police departments and state lawmakers.

For instance, aerial fireworks exploding in the sky over suburban houses or fireworks set off in the streets of cities like Harrisburg.

They produce squeals of delight from kids in the neighborhood and squeals of complaint from first responders like Harrisburg Fire Chief Brian Enterline.

“We’ve become war zones because of the legalization of these fireworks,” Enterline said after two fireworks caused fires over the July 4 weekend.

A boy in Luzerne County died in a fire blamed on fireworks.

The powerful displays, long-banned in Pennsylvania, were legalized as part of the 2017 budget.

“I voted no,” state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) said. “Hindsight being 20/20, that was the best vote I could have ever made.”

Phillips-Hill says the big fight that budget year was over holding the line on taxes. To do so, lawmakers ultimately expanded gambling, which got lots of headlines. It also legalized aerial fireworks, which was mostly a dud in terms of publicity.

“Sometimes, the General Assembly looks for revenue in unusual places,” Phillips-Hill said.

Ignoring the potential danger for the potential dollars, the law tacks on an additional 12% tax. So, $100 worth of fireworks is first hit with 12% percent, to $112. The state’s 6% sales tax is then added, to $118.72. Yes, the state taxes the tax for an effective rate of 18.72%. Last fiscal year, it brought in $8 million. The first $2 million goes to the state fire commissioner to be doled out to EMS and volunteer fire companies.

It’s not enough, Phillips-Hill says.

“We ask them to do so much with so little, and certainly $8 million wouldn’t begin to recover the costs incurred responding to these types of calls,” she said.

Phillips-Hill says in York County, there were more than 300 fireworks-related calls over the Fourth, but only eight citations were issued. The fine to violators is $100.

“A hundred dollars is a small slap on the hand, and that’s not going to change anyone’s behavior,” she said.

But thanks to advertising and legalizing, the public’s behavior has changed. They’re now buying up fireworks they could never have before and stores are happy to offer deals and specials. What customers aren’t getting, Enterline says, is guidance and instruction.

“They [fireworks stores] are not educating the public, saying you have to be 150 feet away, not allowed to be drinking, can’t set them off in the street, you got to have the owner’s permission. They get their package, spend a couple hundred dollars and off they go.”

The complaints have reached lawmakers and set off a flurry of bills.

They would restrict even further times and days fireworks can be legally used, and they would stiffen penalties for violators. State Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego is generally supportive.

“You can’t legislate common sense, and sometimes the only way you can make people pay attention is to discipline with a fine,” Trego said.

But Enterline insists that if safety is the goal, the only answer is to turn back the clock and completely ban aerial fireworks. To him, that would be a legislative grand finale.

“I don’t think we’ll ever make them illegal again in Pennsylvania,” Enterline said. “I hope that the Legislature will prove me wrong.”

The ABC27 investigators attempted to quantify the damage caused since aerial fireworks were legalized in 2017, but it could not. Statistics on fireworks-related fires, injuries and deaths are simply not calculated and stored in a centralized place. Fire companies don’t keep them, the state fire commissioner doesn’t keep them and neither do hospitals.

The Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association has asked the Legislature to include a mandate in any new fireworks law it crafts that a database is created to specifically store information on mishaps caused by fireworks. 

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