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Fireworks laws fizzle around the Fourth

June 28, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

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Fireworks in the areaFireworks laws fizzle around the Fourth

As Fourth of July celebrations approach this week, fire marshals will meet with police officers to discuss enforcement strategies to prevent fireworks accidents.

But in the end, they said they will have to rely on people's good sense.

"There's not much you can do," said Trooper Louis Vittor, a Pennsylvania deputy fire marshal. "They're all over the place and there's very little prosecution."

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A patchwork of different state laws and few people assigned to watch for fireworks contributes to the problem, according to officials.

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Nationwide, the number of people hurt in fireworks accidents declined by a third in 1996, a year after a 10 percent drop in 1995.

Tri-State area fire officials also report that accidents are rare.

A 7-year-old boy was hurt last summer on Lanvale Street in Hagerstown when someone threw a firecracker at him.

Fire Marshal Tom Brown said that has been the exception rather than the rule. Still, he said it is something he worries about every year during the Fourth of July holiday.

"Certainly, there are illegal fireworks in Hagerstown. It is a problem. Every year at this time, we face it," he said. "Sometimes you can't protect the public from themselves."

Maryland has one of the nation's toughest fireworks laws. All fireworks are illegal to buy, sell or use except for certain exceptions like sparklers in a container marked, "no chlorates or perchlorates," toy gun caps and paper-wrapped snappers.

Possession of illegal fireworks carries a fine of up to $250 and selling them can bring a $1,000 fine.

But Maryland residents can get fireworks in Pennsylvania that are illegal in Maryland. The Keystone State also prohibits the use of most fireworks, but the law does not specifically ban possession.

"It's kind of a Catch-22 situation," Brown said.

Charles Cronauer, the supervisor of the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Washington County office, said some residents also bring in illegal fireworks from Virginia.

"They come across (U.S.) 340 out of Frederick County (Va.)," he said. "How do you stop it?"

Carol Nolte, a public education officer in the West Virginia Fire Marshal's Office, said her state has the same problem with Ohio.

When people drive across the border and buy fireworks, the state of Ohio requires purchasers to sign an agreement not to use them in Ohio, Nolte said. Then they simply return home and use them illegally in West Virginia, she said.

In 1995, the West Virginia legislature loosened the restrictions on fireworks and reclassified sparklers and other items as legal fireworks.

Nolte said the state fire marshal's office opposed the change.

She said sparklers can reach temperatures between 1,200 and 1,800 degrees. By comparison, the flame from a typical cigarette lighter is about 900 degrees.

"We'd never think of giving one of those to our children. But we'll give them sparklers," Nolte said.

Nolte said even legal fireworks can be unsafe because of improper use or malfunction. She said many of the products are made in foreign countries that have lower manufacturing standards than the United States.

"We don't feel that any kind of fireworks are safe to use. They're too unpredictable," she said.




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