WILKES-BARRE TWP. — With Harrisburg’s blessing, Pennsylvanians are looking forward to blowing stuff up this Independence Day.
A new state law took effect last year allowing residents to purchase aerial fireworks for the first time in decades, creating a rush on seasonal vendors.
“We sold out of our biggest thing on the first day,” said Caitie Rogan, who was staffing the TNT Fireworks tent in the Sam’s Club parking lot in Wilkes-Barre Township Friday afternoon and again on Saturday.
“A guy came and specifically asked for the biggest thing,” Rogan added.
Keystone State residents are allowed to buy “the biggest thing” thanks to Act 43, which, in part, raises taxes on fireworks sales and increases the number of fireworks legally allowed to be purchased in the commonwealth, both intended to boost state revenue.
With that new freedom comes increased responsibility, as health care professionals, police and fire departments encourage consumers to enjoy their fireworks safely and in accordance with local laws.
Health care professionals, police and fire departments are wary of the change, however, cautioning consumers to use their purchases safely — if at all — and in accordance with local ordinances.
“My foremost concern is that the increased use of consumer grade fireworks will result in injuries and damage to properties,” Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jay Delaney said in a statement released by the city last week. “Additionally, one cannot predict where consumer grade aerial fireworks will land — whether it be on a house, a commercial building, or in a tree.”
Delaney, as president of the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association, “strongly opposed” the expanded use of fireworks, writing letters to state legislators in attempts to sway them against it.
“Simply put, fireworks are dangerous,” he said.
Kevin Shaub, co-owner of Keystone Fireworks, stresses the importance of safety.
“Common sense is the number one prevention for injury,” said Shaub, whose company operates stores around the state, including a superstore in a former pharmacy on Carey Avenue in Hanover Township.
Shaub said that all of the fireworks Keystone sells have been rigorously tested to ensure that they’re safe, but he said there are a handful of things the user needs to do to ensure safety.
According to Shaub, you need to prepare a level space, using objects like a flat piece of plywood to flatten the area. Then, use cinderblocks or bricks to stabilize the fireworks to ensure they don’t tip while being fired.
“All of our products pass the tip test, and if they’re used properly, they won’t tip,” Shaub said. “But why not use extra precaution?”
Shaub also recommends having a bucket of water and a hose on hand, and to soak all the spent fireworks to make sure the item has been totally extinguished. If a firework appears to be a “dud,” don’t try to relight it. Just toss it in the bucket with the rest.
Shaub said every customer at one of his stores are handed a safety flyer that advises both of how to be safe and how to comply with the law.
As long as people buy from what Shaub called “reputable dealers” and follow safety tips, they should be fine.
“People get hurt because they’re trying to buy something out of the back of some guy’s van,” he said.
Shaub also emphasized another thing: Don’t hand fireworks to kids.
“Sparklers are probably the most dangerous item you can think of because they’re in your hand, and sparklers in the hands of children is very dangerous,” he said. “They’re not ready to handle something like that.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but aerial fireworks are often safer then sparklers, he explained.
“It’s safer to look at them from afar than down at your hand,” he said.
Dr. Todd Holmes, director of emergency medicine at Geisinger South Wilkes-Barre, said he sees the same types of injuries every Independence Day.
“I think I worked the first 12 Fourth of Julys of my career, and every Fourth of July it was the same patient: a 20-year-old guy, he was pale and green, intoxicated and holding his hand like this,” the doctor said while clutching one hand in the other as if he’d been seriously injured.
Holmes said intoxication is one of the biggest issues, along with giving fireworks to children.
“Alcohol and fireworks don’t mix. Fireworks and small children don’t mix. So be very careful with fireworks and small children,” he said. “Even sparklers, they throw sparks, they can injure your eyes, and they’re still hot after they burn, so a child can burn their hands.”
Just say no?
Some organizations take a very strong stance.
Last week, the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, released a statement in which they said the safest way of dealing with fireworks is simple: don’t.
“NFPA recommends that revelers refrain from using consumer fireworks and attend public fireworks displays put on by trained professionals,” the release said. “Fireworks annually cause devastating burns, injuries, fires, and even death, making them too dangerous to be used safely by consumers.”
And if many local municipalities could have their way, everyone would refrain.
While it won’t be in place before July 4, the City of Wilkes-Barre is working on its own ordinance that would “promote public safety in the city, while upholding the state law.”
While the details of the proposed ordinance have not been made clear, Delaney said Friday evening that it will look very similar to one recently adopted by the City of Lancaster.
As reported by LNP, Lancaster’s ordinance was passed last week and aims to codify a punishment for violating the state’s law of setting off fireworks within 150 feet of a building or vehicle. Violators in Lancaster would be subject to a $100 fine. In a city as densely packed as Lancaster — and, by extension, Wilkes-Barre — this amounts to a de facto ban, the paper reported.
Delaney said Wilkes-Barre officials will soon be approaching city council to ask for an approval for an ordinance here.
In the meanwhile, Delaney and Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George have expressed concern over the types of fireworks the new state law will allow. They also stressed that under the current code, fireworks cannot be used on city property without the express permission of the city, and that includes city parks.
Wilkes-Barre police will prosecute those who use fireworks illegally “to the fullest extent of the law,” George added in a release issued last week.
He and Delaney stressed that the safest way to enjoy fireworks is to just leave them to the pros, saying the city will continue its tradition of setting off fireworks at dusk in Kirby Park on the Fourth of July.
Wilkes-Barre’s concerns are not unique.
In Hazleton, the city already has a ordinance banning the sale, possession or discharging of fireworks except in public exhibitions by experts, and those require a permit.
Mayor Jeff Cusat has said that the city stands by its ordinance. Residents who want to report fireworks being set off in the city are asked to call 911, but be sure to let the operator know it is not an emergency.
Hanover Township Police Chief Al Walker, meanwhile, posted a warning on his department’s Facebook page.
“We will be out in our community looking for compliance with the new law and taking appropriate action when necessary,” Walker wrote on Friday.
At the Keystone Fireworks superstore, one family from Moosic said they take the safety tips seriously, and even add some of their own.
“It’s adults only, and everyone needs both leg and feet covering,” said Marion Townend, 61. She and her daughter, Heather Townend, 33, were stocking up for their own display.
“If you’re going to do this, be smart,” Marion said. The Townends say they take firework safety seriously after one of their relatives sustained a burn to the eye at a firework display.
The Townends also encouraged making sure any pets are locked safely in the house and supplying ear protection for younger children enjoying the display.
Despite the new state law that allows for bigger explosives to be used, the Townends said they’ll be keeping it simple.
“We try to stay small. It’s expensive to make it big,” Marion said. “If you want that, go somewhere safe where you can enjoy the show.”
Staff writer Brigid Edmunds-Lawrence contributed to this report.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan