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Hagerstown fire officials on lookout for illegal fireworks

June 25, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- With July 4 drawing near, Hagerstown fire officials are on patrol every night for illegal fireworks as part of a zero-tolerance approach that can net violators thousands of dollars in fines, according to Hagerstown Fire Department Fire Prevention Coordinator Mike Weller.

With illegal fireworks available to Maryland residents at a number of stands just over the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, unintentional violations are common, Weller said.

The easiest way for Maryland residents to stay on the right side of the law is to buy fireworks only in-state, where all fireworks stands have been inspected by local fire marshals to ensure they carry only the ground-based sparkling devices that are legal in Maryland, Weller said.

"Fireworks" is actually a misnomer for the products sold at stands like the one near Burger King on Dual Highway, Weller said. The devices sold there range in size and complexity, but all are designed to sit on the ground and emit showers of sparks - the only type of display legal in Maryland.

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A key word to look for on these legal devices is "caution," Weller said.

In contrast, fireworks that are illegal in Maryland will have the word "warning" printed prominently on the package, Weller said. Other key words indicating a display is illegal include "shoots," "moves," "spins," "explodes" or "reports."

Even fireworks in small or "friendly-looking" packages, such as the ones shaped like tanks, can be illegal, Weller said.

Fireworks that shoot or explode are especially dangerous in areas like downtown Hagerstown, Weller said.

"They are unpredictable," he said. "They can malfunction, they can go into someone's home, they can go into a next yard and end up on the roof."

About 10 years ago, two neighboring houses burned to the ground in Hagerstown after two children got into a bottle rocket fight and one of the rockets landed inside a house, Weller said.

Despite the dangers, illegal fireworks remain a problem every year, Weller said. In 2005, Hagerstown fire officials collected more than 10,000 pieces of illegal fireworks around the July 4 holiday, he said. Already this year, emergency officials have begun to be inundated with reports of gunfire that turns out to be fireworks, Weller said.

Fire officials do not take violations lightly. Violators are issued fines of $250 per illegal piece, whether the violator is seen discharging them or merely in possession of them, Weller said. That means being caught with a package of five fireworks carries a fine of $1,250, he said.

Weller encouraged residents to use caution with the legal ground-based sparklers. These should be used on a flat, level surface at least 12 feet from anything that can burn, such as buildings, grass and trees, he said.

"They're as safe as the user makes them," Weller said of the sparklers.

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