200702ind Fireworks

Scott McHugh, an operator for the Phantom Fireworks store on Old Tower Hill Road in Wakefield, organizes the products in the store on June 27. While Phantom Fireworks abides by state law in the products it sells, local police departments across Rhode Island have noticed a rise in residents who have traveled out of state to procure and set off illegal airborne fireworks, often at personal risk.

With the Fourth of July just two days away, local police are ready for the potential of more home-based sparklers and glowing fireworks in the dark night time sky usually lit up by thunderous displays from area towns.

However, officials caution that state laws only permit certain kinds of fireworks at home, safety is a concern and that illegal fireworks can bring fines of more than $1,000 and prison time, especially if someone is injured.

“If someone is injured, that is a whole different situation.  It must be reported to the state fire marshal and usually a joint investigation with the state, the police and the fire department,” said South Kingstown Police Chief Joseph Geaber.

Because of social distancing rules and the need to keep people safely away from each other due to the coronavirus, towns throughout the state — including Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown — have canceled or postponed this 243 year-old American tradition.

The only exception July 4 could be a private display on a barge in Point Judith Pond, off the coast from Galilee. However, the company paid to set off the display was still awaiting Tuesday U.S. Coast Guard permits.

Celebrating the signing of the country’s Declaration of Independence began with John Adams, who wrote to his wife, Abigail, this “will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.”

“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more,” he wrote.

By 1783 a large variety of fireworks were available to the public. In 1784 one merchant offered a range of pyrotechnics that included “rockets, serpents, wheels, table rockets, cherry trees, fountains, and sun flowers.”

While not as glorious as this one founder proposed, fireworks in many states, including Rhode Island, have been legally limited for the kinds the general public may possess.


Local Sales and Complaints

However, this year that number has the potential to increase, said Scott McHugh, who opened shop last week in South Kingstown to sell legal fireworks for Phantom Fireworks, a company based in Youngstown, Ohio.

“On our first day we saw a significantly higher number of sales here than we did a year ago on that day,” said McHugh who also has temporary pop-up store last year in South Kingstown. Lining the more than 12 tables in his makeshift store were bright-colored boxes with names like “Shower of Power,” “Backyard Bash” and “Crown Jewel.”

Beyond these big-guns of legal fireworks, he also was selling snaps, sparklers and other kinds that whistle, pop, gyrate, but none that go more than four or five feet off the ground.

“I think we are seeing more sales because people are just cooped up from COVID and looking for a little sparkle, thrill, in their lives right about now,” he said.

Agreeing with him is the National Fireworks Association’s Larry Farnsworth. Nationwide consumer fireworks sales across the country are exceeding sales in previous years, he said in an interview with The Independent.  

Even without the coronavirus influence of more individuals seeking some fun through fireworks, U.S. sales in 2018 were $945 million rose to $1 billion last year, according to Farnsworth..

With large professional fireworks displays being canceled around the country and the Fourth of July falling on a weekend, more Americans are choosing to celebrate with consumer fireworks because they can still come together with friends and neighbors while socially distancing, he said.

That thought may carry over to at least one local town — Narragansett - where Police Chief Sean Corrigan reported having at least 22 noise complaints in June this year for fireworks compared to only one complaint last year for the same month.

In South Kingstown and North Kingstown, however, there has not been that kind of dramatic rise in complaints, officials there said.

Noise — and especially at night — often draws calls to police who respond, but can encounter problems finding those responsible or even see the fireworks detonated, police officials said.

“It has been my experience that people don’t call (police) on fireworks until they are fed up which is usually close to when the people using them are finishing up. In some instances only a small inventory of fireworks are used. In either case the result is when officers arrive the area is quiet,” said Corrigan.

Chiefs Geaber in South Kingstown and Patrick Flanagan in North Kingstown agreed.

Flanagan said, “We respond to a scene, but don’t see anybody doing it. But if some people are still there, we tell them to knock it off, but usually the setting off is done before officers arrive and difficult to identify who did it. “


Legal and Illegal Fireworks

In Rhode Island, only ground and hand-held sparkling devices — sparklers — are legal for use by the general public. These devices are ground based or hand-held devices that produce a shower of white, gold, or colored sparks as their primary pyrotechnic effect, according to police.

Additional effects may include a colored flame, an audible crackling effect, an audible whistle effect, and smoke. These devices do not rise into the air, do not fire inserts or projectiles into the air, and do not explode, but may have a mild audible crackling-type effect, law enforcement officials noted.

Ground-based or hand-held devices that produce a cloud of smoke as their sole pyrotechnic effect are also included in this category.

Examples include: ground-based and hand-held sparkling devices, fountains, illuminating torches, wheels, spinners, flitter sparklers, party poppers, snappers, toy smoke devices, snakes, glow worms, wire sparklers and dipped sticks.

Illegal fireworks are those banned under state law, which mandates that no one can sell, use or possess display fireworks or aerial consumer fireworks, law enforcement officials said. Any firecrackers, rockets, mortars, or any other device that launches a projectile or makes a “bang” or detonation cannot be used by the general public.

Anyone convicted of possessing more than $500 worth of illegal fireworks faces a felony charge, which carries up to a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison.  Possessing less than $500 worth of illegal can bring a misdemeanor charge and up to a $500 fine and one year in jail, according to police officials.


Safety Around Fireworks

Fire safety officials are opposed to anyone using commercial fireworks, said Chris Hiener, fire marshal for the Union Fire District in South Kingstown.

“While this may disrupt the plans of many residents and visitors, we would like to remind our community members that they should not create or partake in their own fireworks display in the absence of the community’s professional display,” said South Kingstown Fire Chief Steven Pinch.

“The illegal use of fireworks isn’t worth the trip to the emergency room or the destruction of property,” he added.

In its more report on fireworks and issued last June, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said:

It received reports of five nonoccupational fireworks-related deaths during 2018. All of these fatalities were associated with reloadable aerial devices, and all five victims died from direct impacts of fireworks.  

Fireworks were involved in an estimated 9,100 injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments during calendar year 2018 and Children younger than 15 often account for one-third of the injuries.

The parts of the body most often injured were hands and fingers, legs, eyes, head, face, ears and arms. Forty-four percent of the emergency department-treated injuries were burns. Burns were the most common injury to hands, fingers, and arms.

The National Fireworks Association’s Larry Farnsworth said that caution is the main objective with anyone who uses commercially purchased fireworks.

“What we try to impress on everyone on the Fourth of July — and any other time — is to have a designated person” who is not drinking alcohol handle all the fireworks, he said in an interview this week with The Independent.

He also offered the following tips for safe-handling:

Know the fireworks rules and what’s permissible in your jurisdiction.

Read, understand and follow the directions on the packaging.

Always have a hose or a bucket of water nearby. You can dispose of your spent devices in buckets of water, especially sparklers.

Block and brace your fireworks with bricks or cinderblocks. This is an extra measure prevents your device from possibly tipping over and firing at you, your spectators or property.

Never try to relight a dud. Spray it down with water and set it aside before discarding it.

Under no circumstances should you ever stand over a lit firework or hold one in your hand. Fireworks should never be pointed at anyone.

“We want to make sure we reiterate to people that if you do plan to shoot consumer fireworks for your Independence Day celebration at home; that you follow our safety tips and shoot safely,” said Steve Houser, association president.

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