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House, Senate committees hear about problems with Pa. fireworks law

The sky above Reading and other area communities was aglow with loud, colorful explosions this past Fourth of July weekend, as a seemingly never ending string of amateur fireworks displays filled the air.

And while the view may have been beautiful to some, for others it was a nuisance and a danger.

Fireworks caused a slew of fires around Berks County, and emergency crews were left scrambling to deal with it all. In Reading alone, city police said they responded to 215 fireworks-related incidents.

Reading and Berks were far from alone.

Ever since shooting off consumer fireworks was made legal in Pennsylvania four years ago — a measure that was slipped into a larger tax code bill — local officials and emergency responders across the commonwealth have found themselves dealing with the fallout. And many think the law needs to be changed, again.

During a House and Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs committees joint hearing Wednesday in Harrisburg, they got a chance to explain why.

Officials representing municipal leaders, police and firefighters told legislators about what the legalization of consumer fireworks has meant and expressed a desire to give local governments the latitude to exercise control over the use of fireworks. The law is unenforceable, they said, and has led to steep increases in work for emergency responders and added danger for local communities.

The law

The legalization of consumer fireworks was included in Act 43 of 2017.

It does not allow for the unfettered use of fireworks but sets up ground rules for their use by regular citizens.

They may not be used on public or private property without the owner’s consent and may not be set off by someone under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. They also are not to be ignited within 150 feet of an occupied structure.

The 150-foot rule means that they’re effectively outlawed in most cities, boroughs and other densely-populated areas.

The fine for violating any of the rules is $100.

The legalization of fireworks in Act 43, a bill that amended the state tax code, has generated millions of dollars in revenue for the state. It added a 12% fireworks tax on top of the traditional 6% sales tax. The vast majority of that tax goes into the general fund, which means it can be used for any purpose the state wishes.

Sen. Judy Schwank, who has authored a bill to repeal the legalization of consumer fireworks, acknowledged during the hearing that the additional sales tax has generated more than $11 million in revenue for the state since the law was enacted.

But she said she considers the concerns of her constituents more valuable. Schwank, who serves as minority chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said a hearing focused on the unintended consequences of the bill was long overdue.

“We’re discussing how to fix a problem that we solely created when we enacted the new fireworks law,” the Ruscombmanor Township Democrat told her colleagues. “The complaints about serious problems caused by allowing consumers to access previously outlawed high-powered fireworks comes from everyone no matter where they live. That’s why I introduced legislation to repeal the law.”

Schwank’s views on repealing the legalization of consumer fireworks are shared by many local officials.

Township and boroughs

Officials representing local governments told legislators that the legalization of consumer fireworks has brought significant challenges to municipal leaders across Pennsylvania primarily due to a blatant disregard for safety and a lack of common sense among users.

Joe Gerdes, director of government relations for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, testified that though some people may dismiss the use of fireworks as a nuisance, there is a real issue involving safety concerns and infringement on personal rights.

“We realize that consumer fireworks are now legal and that is not likely to change anytime soon,” he admitted. “However, we believe there are some areas where the Legislature should reset the parameters of the law and allow local governments some latitude in exercising local control.”

Edward C. Troxell, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, said the enforcement aspect of the law is not working. He said the current law is vague on policing powers.

“I know the argument is going to be that we just need to enforce this law,” he said. “Well, actually the penalties behind enforcing this law are $100 and a summary offense. Now anyone who has actually dealt with these types of penalties knows that they can be challenged, which can tie up a police officer and add to our legal costs. That part of the law is definitely not working for us.”

Amy Sturges, director of governmental affairs for Pennsylvania Municipal League, said members of her organization strongly believe repealing the law is the only way to address the issue because enforcement is nearly impossible.

“This is an impossible unfunded mandate that is wasting valuable public safety resources,” she told the legislators.

She pointed out that municipalities across the commonwealth are so different and that they only need to look at the bills that have been introduced this session to see that there are many different opinions on how they should fix the law.

“And if repeal is not on the table, local control is the key to more effective management,” she said. “The one-size-fits-all approach of the current law is not appropriate because the makeup of municipalities varies considerably. Local officials need the flexibility to decide locally how best to approach consumer fireworks in their communities.”

The panel put forth some of the changes they would like to see. They believe municipalities should have the ability to:

  • Reasonably regulate the frequency and length of consumer fireworks displays including limitations on the hours they may take place.
  • Extend the length of the required distance from occupied structures needed to legally set off consumer fireworks from the current rule of at least 150 feet. This would include creating zones that would prohibit the use of fireworks altogether, such as near schools, hospitals, veterans facilities and nursing homes.
  • Increase the $100 fine to $1,000 and create a tiered system for repeat offenders.
  • To opt out of the law or take the issue to voters through a ballot referendum.

Sen. Elder Vogel, majority chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, asked those on the panel if they could point to the number of incidents or complaints they have received since the law was enacted.

They acknowledged that they don’t have hard data. And, they said, that was something they would like to see changed.

“Data is a problem because there is nothing in the law that is allowing for statewide data collection,” Sturges said. “There was no data prior to 2017 because fireworks were illegal. Since 2017, we don’t have appropriate methods in place for data collection, so that is one of the things that we would be requesting in any rewrite of this legislation.”

Rep. Eddie Pashinski, minority chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, asked if there is anything in the current law that would prohibit municipalities from adopting ordinances regarding fireworks.

Troxell pointed out that while the law doesn’t explicitly prevent municipalities from creating ordinances, local officials are hesitant to set regulations without clear statutory authority, fearing that they would be challenged in court.

“The last thing we want to do is face a challenge and all the thousands of dollars that are equated with that,” he said.

Schwank noted that even if legislators rewrote the law to allow for the establishment of local ordinances, it would make little difference in communities that rely on state police for law enforcement since troopers are not responsible for enforcing local ordinances.

“Enforcement is the tough part here,” Troxell said. “I don’t think anybody has an easy answer.”

Sen. Gene Yaw said he supported the law because he thought it was silly that someone from a different state could come to Pennsylvania to purchase consumer fireworks but a Pennsylvania resident could not. He said it  made no sense whatsoever that people would be treated differently, and that is why he supported the change.

Sturges said her research found that even though neighboring states allow out-of-state residents to purchase consumer fireworks, there was only one state where they could take them home and use them legally. That was West Virginia, and even then municipalities are allowed to ban their use or enact strict regulations.

“So I don’t think what we’re asking for is out of the ordinary,” she said. “It is something that is being done in other states.”

Yaw said he’s open to suggestions. In fact, he said he has already introduced legislation that would allow local governments to implement time restrictions on discharging consumer fireworks and increase the criminal penalties for using them in violation of the law.

“We cannot legislate common sense or against stupidity,” he said, noting that the current rule that says they can’t be set off within 150 feet of an occupied structure would effectively ban them completely in many residential areas.

Rep. Mark Gillen, a Robeson Township Republican who sits on the House committee, has opposed the law from the very beginning. He said he believes some of his colleagues caused a significant problem by tapping a new source for revenue without measuring other costs.

He said he doesn’t think recalibrating the law is the solution; he believes repealing the law is.

“What I’m hearing in our communities is that this is a quality-of-life issue,” he said. “People are deeply disturbed by the change in the law. I think there is a disconnect between what goes on in Harrisburg and what happens in our local communities, and I think it’s exemplified in this law.”

Emergency responders

Officials representing emergency responder organizations said enforcing and responding to complaints has been difficult.

Sgt. Jerry Harper, supervisor for the Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal Unit, said  it’s difficult to enforce these laws because the agency has such large territory to cover.

“The majority of those enforcement actions have been noise complaints or complaints of public intoxication while using fireworks as a result of a neighbor complaint after the fact,” he said. “But usually by the time state police or any other law enforcement agency does arrive the person involved in that action is usually gone.”

Schwank said Reading Police Chief Richard Tornelli told her that it cost the city about $28,000 in overtime costs to have officers respond to incidents over the July Fourth holiday this summer. And there is an additional cost to destroy the fireworks when they are confiscated.

Scott Bohn, executive director for the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, said he has heard similar complaints from other police chiefs. He pointed out officers are likely to prioritize the calls around the holidays, and because they rarely know the exact location where the fireworks were set off, these calls are hard to track down.

“Many of these police forces don’t have the bandwidth to deal with this issue and, more importantly, we don’t have the ability to track those complaints,” he said.

Jay Delaney, fire chief for Wilkes-Barre and president of the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association, said the organization has steadfastly opposed the expansion of consumer fireworks. He said that when Act 43 was passed the emergency response community had no way to voice any opposition through a hearing.

“The new law poses a significant public safety and first-responder safety risk,” he said.

Delaney said the feedback the organization has received from fire chiefs and municipal leaders across the state is in line with their call to repeal or amend the law. He noted that calls to repeal the legislation have gained support and that the 39 members who represent major fire and medical service organizations throughout the commonwealth voted unanimously for the law to be reassessed.

“This was the emergency response community speaking as one voice,” he said, noting that fireworks have a big impact on densely populated neighborhoods, on some of our military veterans, on our pets, on our health and on our homes.

“Members of our organization reported their communities were like war zones on the Fourth of July,” he said. “Put simply, fireworks are dangerous and their use should have never been expanded. There are no safe fireworks. There is something wrong when an industry sells amateur pyrotechnic products that emit chemical grade materials that when ignited create enough heat to melt glass or maim a person for life.”

If there is not enough support for the law to be repealed, he asked for the following:

  • Allowing municipalities to set their own regulations.
  • Increasing the distance from an occupied structure to a minimum of 500 feet.
  • Increasing the fine from $100 to $1,000 and elevating the offense to a misdemeanor.
  • Allocating some of the revenue for fire emergency services to mitigate the affects of fireworks.
  • Mandating the reporting of fireworks incidents to the state fire commissioner for collection into a database.

Members of the panel pointed out that they do not have information to share with the legislators about the number of fireworks complaints or arrests since Act 43 was enacted since their records management system does not have a specific data collection for fireworks.

But Bohn and Harper said that they know from speaking with officers from across the state that the number of complaints has increased since the law was enacted, and they have no doubt that legalizing consumer fireworks led to an increase in their use, which has led to more complaints and more potential for injuries to occur.

Firework manufacturer

Danial Peart, the director of government affairs for Phantom Fireworks, attended the hearing to represent the retailers who are selling consumer fireworks.

“We have always viewed the fireworks law as a state law that allows for local adaptation, which is typically a recipe for success,” he said, adding that dozens of municipalities have enacted ordinances setting more stringent restrictions. “It seems clear that more guidelines from the state are wanted. However, we continue to believe that the enforcement of fireworks use remains a local issue.

“With the state providing some additional framework of regulation, local governments should have everything at their disposal to form their position on the use of consumer fireworks,” he continued. ” As with most legislative issues, no one will get everything they want, but hopefully we all get enough to do our jobs adequately.”

Vogel asked if the company is helping to get the information about the law out to its customers.

Peart said that staff members are aware of what the state laws are regarding fireworks and are there to provide that information to their customers. They also hand out cards that show customers how to use fireworks safely, pass out pamphlets explaining the rules and post information throughout the store.

“We are doing our best to canvass the consumer with some of this educational material so they do understand what the state law is,” he said.

Peart said retailers are committed to doing their part to be good corporate citizens and will do whatever they have been tasked with doing. But, he said, the municipalities need to engage in educational efforts as well.

Following the hearing, Schwank said she was pleased to hear directly from all the stakeholders who have been impacted by Act 43. She said she believed there is agreement that things need to change, but the next step in the process is unclear.

“The state Legislature alone created the problems we’re seeing, not only in Berks County but statewide, in terms of fireworks,” she said. “We must be willing to acknowledge that and take action.”

She said increased local control was repeatedly referenced as a potential solution short of a full repeal of consumer-grade fireworks. This may be a path forward, she said, but the undue burdens the state is placing on local first responders and state police would still need to be addressed. Additionally, stiffening penalties would go a long way towards enforcing the current law, which is routinely flouted.

She said that her stance on the issue has been shaped in large part by constituents speaking out.

“In Berks County, the feedback from constituents has been overwhelming, consistent and very clear: People want something to be done about this,” she said. “There has been a disconnect between Harrisburg and what is happening elsewhere in Pennsylvania over the past few years when it comes to fireworks. Continuing to slow-walk changing the law or insisting that this is just an enforcement issue doesn’t do anything for people who are fed up with inaction.”

Schwank said it’s time for lawmakers to take ownership of that fact, listen to constituents and work together to find solutions. Following the hearing, she said she’s more optimistic that they can accomplish that.

BEN HASTY – READING EAGLE,

People set off consumer aerial fireworks in Reading on July Fourth.

House, Senate committees hear about problems with Pa. fireworks law Source link House, Senate committees hear about problems with Pa. fireworks law

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