December 23, 2012

One year later, consumer fireworks safety misgivings prove largely unfounded

By Ben McCanna
Staff Writer

When the Maine Legislature legalized consumer fireworks nearly a year ago, many residents predicted the worst: devastating fires, mortal injuries and sleepless nights.

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Staff illustration by Sharon Wood

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Tyler Basinger. right, restocks shelves as customers line up to check out on at the Pyro City fireworks store in Manchester earlier this year. Scott Boucher, retail manager at the store, said that there were people waiting out in the parking lot before they opened Tuesday. "We're staying busy and everybody's happy," he said. The store is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Sunday July 8th. This is the first Independence Day since the state legislature passed a law legalizing consumer fireworks last year.

Staff fil photo by Joe Phelan

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Earlier this year, Acting State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas issued a news release saying that fireworks users must:

• Be 21 or older.

• Buy fireworks at state-licensed stores.

• Check with municipalities for local ordinances governing the use of fireworks.

• Avoid areas or conditions that are susceptible to fires, such as dry grass or timber.

• Use fireworks only between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m.

• Use fireworks only on one's own property, or another's property if written permission is given.

• Keep a garden hose, water bucket or fire extinguisher nearby.

• Wear eye protection.

• Follow all directions provided on packaging.

• Light only one device at a time.

• Keep spectators at a safe distance.

• Be considerate of neighbors, pets and the environment.

• Clean up debris when finished.

• Stand clear of any device that does not discharge for at least 15 minutes; then douse it with water.

• Maintain close supervision of children; keep them at a safe distance and make sure fireworks are kept out their reach.

• Call 911 in an emergency.

One year later, the verdict is in: So far so good.

That's the assessment of Richard Taylor, senior research and planning analyst with the State Fire Marshal's Office, who oversees the retail fireworks industry in Maine. Taylor, who has collected preliminary data on the state's first year of fireworks, said there were 19 fireworks-related injuries and few fires in 2012. There are still more data to collect, but Taylor will not recommend any changes to the law when he presents his first annual report on fireworks to the Legislature early next year.

Meanwhile, after an initial boom in sales last summer, consumers' appetite for fireworks seemingly has cooled, according to the state's largest fireworks retailer.

'I'd say we're happy'

At the start of 2012, fireworks were legal in Maine, but there was no place to buy them. Stringent building codes delayed retailers' entry into the emerging market. However, by springtime fireworks stores began cropping up throughout the state and business was suddenly brisk. Today there are 16 fireworks stores and another will be licensed soon, Taylor said.

As the availability of fireworks rose, so did the number of noise complaints. In June and early July, many police departments were swamped with calls as municipal leaders struggled to find a balance between residents' right to use fireworks and their right to peace and quiet, as is afforded by local noise ordinances.

After the Fourth of July, however, fireworks-related complaints tapered off significantly. Police in Waterville and Winslow, for instance, saw reports drop from as many as eight per day to zero.

As part of the law, the fire marshal's office is required to present an annual report on consumer fireworks to the Legislature. The report isn't complete, but Taylor said the preliminary data are encouraging.

"Overall, I'd say we're happy," he said.

Taylor's report will be compiled from data provided by hospitals and municipal fire departments, which are required to file fireworks-related incident reports to the state.

The injury reports contain medical providers' assessments in four categories: the severity of injury, the areas of the body that were injured, the reason for the accident and the type of device that was used. The severity of the injury is broken into three categories: minor, moderate and significant. Minor injuries are defined as first-degree burns, minor cuts or stitches. Moderate injuries are second-degree burns, lacerations or broken bones. Significant injuries are third-degree burns, partial or total loss of digits, hearing or sight, Taylor said.

In 2012, there were 19 injuries, four of which were significant, Taylor said.

Of the 19 injuries, the majority were caused by stationary fireworks, such as mortar tubes. Stationary fireworks do not include handheld fireworks such as sparklers or firecrackers. In most cases, human error or failure to follow instructions -- not malfunction -- caused the injury, Taylor said.

Fire data won't be complete until summer, because municipal fire departments aren't required to file their reports until the end of July, Taylor said. Nonetheless, the fire marshal's office has received some reports of fireworks-related blazes, most of which were minor brush fires, he said.

When data are available, Taylor will be able to set a dollar amount on total fireworks-related fire damage for 2012.

"Based on what I've seen so far, it would be pretty minute," he said.

Two of the year's worst fireworks-related fires -- an apartment fire in Portland and a deck fire in Old Orchard Beach -- were caused by handheld sparklers, which were legal in Maine before the 2012 law.

(Continued on page 2)

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