EDITORIAL: Take another look at the fireworks law
Admittedly, the old fireworks law was weird.
Until this year, fireworks stores in Pennsylvania could sell "Class C" or consumer-grade fireworks, but only to people who didn't live in the state. Pennsylvania residents could only buy ground-based firecrackers.
But last year, a new law was passed to allow residents of the commonwealth to make more noise without running afoul of the law. Pennsylvanians could buy fireworks with up to 50 milligrams of explosive materials and set them off, as long as they followed the rules.
So it's understandable that, given the freedom to set off bottle rockets and Roman candles legally for the first time, some Pennsylvanians might go a little overboard.
But surely no one thought it would get to this level.
With July 4 falling on a Wednesday this year, explosions started even before dark all over the county from one weekend through the next. Professional fireworks shows competed with the amateurs, or amateurs picked up when the professionals were done.
Between July 1 and July 5, York County 911 fielded 331 calls complaining about people setting off fireworks. That's nearly twice as many calls as they received during the same period in 2017.
In York Township, a home owner and a neighbor used a garden hose to put out a fire caused by neighborhood fireworks."I think that there was a continued misunderstanding that just because it's legal to purchase the fireworks, it's legal to set them off — which isn't what the law says," said York City spokesman Philip Given.
The law laid out rules, including that fireworks had to be 150 feet away from any houses and that anyone setting off fireworks had to have the permission of the property owner.
Apparently those rules didn't sink in for those who wanted to watch things explode.
"We made attempts to educate people, but clearly it didn't work well," Northern York County Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel said. "Our hope was that we would avoid this."
Bentzel's department went on 31 calls and issued five citations for fireworks just on July 4, he said. All of the citations were for setting off fireworks too close to a house.
York City officers were overwhelmed by the fireworks calls, Given said. As Mayor Michael Helfrich pointed out before the annual festival of explosions began, there are very few sites within the city that are 150 feet away from a building.
"I don't think that any resident intended to ruin the night of their neighbors, but I do hope that over the next year conversations happen," Given said.
Conversations definitely do need to happen, and some need to happen in Harrisburg.
We understand that the stores that sell fireworks and the businesses that make them like that they now have a brand new market for things that go boom in the night.
But there must be a way to ensure public safety and peace as well.
Perhaps everyone who buys the new kinds of fireworks needs to sign something saying they understand the restrictions. Maybe every fireworks customer needs to receive a measuring tape so they can tell how far 150 feet is.
Or maybe the Legislature needs to look at the new law again and consider if we need to go back to the old way of doing things. Yes, it was strange, but it was also a lot calmer.