City seeks to curb fireworks

State liberalizing rules left neighborhood ‘a war zone’

A literal dumpster fire caused by kids playing with fireworks that threatened two downtown buildings on July 3 mirrors the metaphorical dumpster fire that city officials say the state created by liberalizing the fireworks law last fall.

Accordingly, Altoona officials plan to cooperate with the Pennsylvania Municipal League in trying to persuade the General Assembly to allow municipalities to add local restrictions — given that enforcement of existing limits in the state law seems to be nearly impossible.

“My neighborhood was a war zone” on Independence Day, Juniata resident Mike Sanders told City Council at a meeting this week. “It was crazy.”

Sanders recalled standing outside and watching “things going across my house.”

There were “half-sticks (of dynamite) and quarter-sticks,” both of which remain illegal, he said.

There was also “alcohol involved,” he surmised.

“Someone is going to get killed or maimed,” Sanders said. “Or a house caught on fire.”

Many of his neighbors were similarly upset, he said.

Obviously, there was little effective enforcement of the requirement in the liberalized law that fireworks not be set off within 150 feet of an occupied structure, Sanders said.

Given the density of housing in the city, that restriction should have pretty much eliminated all private displays in the city, he said.

“You’re right; there’s definitely a problem,” said Councilman Dave Butter­baugh. “I got exponentially more calls (complaining about fireworks) this year.”

And it would have been worse, if not for the damp weather throughout much of July 4, Butterbaugh said.

Police can hardly enforce the liberalized law’s restrictions — against being too close to buildings and against commercial-grade fireworks — because too many people in too many places are setting devices off and because once those devices explode, there’s little evidence of what happened, said Fire Chief Tim Hileman.

“We just don’t have the resources,” Hileman said. “The state put us in a difficult position.”

It doesn’t appear to be legal for municipalities to enact restrictions that would place limits that go beyond those in the liberalized law, according to solicitor Larry Clapper.

It doesn’t even necessarily seem to be legal for municipalities to limit fireworks use based on their own pre-existing ordinances — like the city’s noise ordinance, officials indicated.

Even if the city could use its noise ordinance to limit fireworks, it might be impractical, because an officer would need to deploy a sound meter to determine a violation, and by the time an officer arrived on scene, most perpetrators would have ceased, said Police Chief Janice Freehling.

Perhaps the city could use the state law’s own requirement that a property owner’s permission is needed to set off a firework, as a basis for prohibiting their use on city streets, alleys and parks, suggested Hileman and Clapper.

The municipal league’s approach is to amend the state law to allow municipalities to enact restrictions that would be practically enforceable, officials said.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to bring it back to what it used to be (before liberalization),” said Mayor Matt Pacifico. “(But it could) give municipalities the ability to kind of control (fireworks) a little more.”

It’s not certain what such amendments would look like, but they might, for example, allow for time restrictions, “so you don’t have fireworks going off at 4 a.m.,” the mayor said.

The municipal league is working with the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association to figure out a strategy, according to Pacifico.

Regardless of legalities, a little common courtesy would help for now, said Councilman Bruce Kelley.

“Something has to be done for next year,” Sanders said. “You gotta somehow curtail this.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.