Fireworks complaints continue to rise in York County

As fireworks complaints continue to rise in York County, some local police departments and government officials are stepping up their enforcement in advance of the Fourth of July holiday.

York City has created a patrol unit to tackle illegal fireworks use as crackling explosions begin to become commonplace.

Mayor Michael Helfrich made the announcement Monday, saying the York City Police and York City Fire and Rescue are teaming up in the effort. 

More:You can still see fireworks on the Fourth of July in York County

More:York Revolution's Fourth of July fireworks cancelled over coronavirus concern

Fireworks have been a thorn in the side of Pennsylvania officials since Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation in 2017 that vastly expanded what fireworks can be used in the state.

“I don’t think the law has changed the behavior of people,” Wolf said during a visit to York County on Tuesday.

From May 21 through June 24, York County 911 had 424 fireworks-related calls, including 315 noise complaints, county spokesperson Mark Walters said Thursday.

During Fourth of July celebrations last year, there were 237 fireworks-related complaints in York County between July 1 and July 4 alone. That was down from 331 complaints received in 2018, the first year of the new law.

But this year, the problem isn't just in Pennsylvania. Communities across the country are seeing a huge jump in fireworks complaints.

In New York City, which was hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio established a task force this week to crack down on illegal sales.

In June, fireworks complaints soared to 13,109 in the city, compared to 32 complaints at the same point in June 2019, ABC News reported.

In Chicago, the city’s police department says it is receiving 7,000 calls about fireworks disturbances every day and Boston police say fireworks complaints are up 2,300% between this year and a similar period last year, according to The Hill.

Meanwhile, suppliers such as Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks have experienced a 200% to 400% increase in sales per day compared to the past year, CEO Bruce Zoldan told The Detroit News.

York City’s patrol unit will respond to complaints of illegal firework use, which could result in citations.

"People are out of control," Helfrich said. "This is not fair to the people of York City."

Public gripes about fireworks use date back to Pennsylvania's 2017 law, which was included as a provision in a larger tax code bill.

Specifically, the provision permitted Pennsylvanians to purchase and use fireworks that could contain up to 50 milligrams of explosive materials, with some restrictions.

Those restrictions included banning fireworks on public property and on any other property without permission, prohibiting use if the individual is intoxicated and barring any fireworks used within 150 feet of any occupied structure.

In densely populated municipalities such as York City, though, that last criteria renders fireworks ostensibly prohibited in any area.

Steve Smith of Tappahannock, Va. checks out at Big Fireworks in Glen Rock Thursday, June 25, 2020. He spent more than his usual $500 for his holiday fireworks show. "My daughter just graduated so I have to do something extra for her," he said. Big Fireworks manager Leslie Wilson estimates sales there are about 4 to 5 times more than the previous year since many municipalities have canceled fireworks due to COVID-19 restrictions this year. Bill Kalina photo

The bill's language "eliminates 99% of fireworks I'm seeing out there," Helfrich said.

Lt. Brian Wilbur said Wednesday that Springettsbury Township Police have seen an increase in fireworks activity within the past week.

His message to residents is simple, due to the close proximity of houses.

“There is a little bit of a misconception as far as legal vs. illegal,” Wilbur said. “As a general a rule of thumb, what I’ve been telling people, because of the way Springettsbury is situated, you’re not allowed to shoot fireworks off here legally.”

Wilbur said the department documents the fireworks complaints it gets through its website. He said officers investigate all calls from York County 911.

He said Springetts police typically issue a warning to violators for the first offense and cite them accordingly if it continues.

“Our first goal is to educate the person and let them know what they can do and can’t do,” Wilbur said. “Heck, there’s a fireworks store right right off Route 30 in Springettsbury, so they figure, ‘If you can buy them, I will and I am going to shooting them off.’”

Chief George Swartz also reported his department received numerous fireworks complaints last weekend in Spring Garden Township.

He said discharging fireworks in residential areas is prohibited because of proximity and punishable by fines.

A selection at Big Fireworks in Glen Rock Thursday, June 25, 2020. Manager Leslie Wilson said sales are about 4 to 5 times more than the previous year since many municipalities have canceled fireworks due to pandemic restrictions this year. Bill Kalina photo

"We also encourage residents to be mindful of potential noise ordinance violations associated with the discharge of consumer fireworks," Swartz said.

In 2018, there were five nonprofessional fireworks-related deaths and an estimated 9,100 patients were treated for fireworks injuries in hospital emergency rooms nationwide, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported.

Fireworks start more than 18,500 fires per year and cause an average of $43 million in direct property damage, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Ryan Tarkowski, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Police, said although specific fireworks rules are in place, residents should check with their local municipalities, which may have different ordinances.

“Fireworks can be dangerous, so please follow manufacturer instructions and laws surrounding their use,” he said. “Nothing will ruin the holiday faster than a trip to the emergency room or a visit from the fire department as the result of a fireworks-related accident.”

A New Salem man is facing charges after pulling a gun on his neighbor during a dispute over a firework that was set off May 31 in the borough, state police said.

Carl Joseph Vanderheyden Jr., 30, is facing one felony count of carrying a firearm without a license, and one misdemeanor count each of simple assault, terroristic threats and recklessly endangering another person, according to online court records.

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