Fireworks revisions a slow go

The main point emerging from the Sept. 24 hearing by the Pennsylvania House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee regarding the state’s current fireworks rules was that significant modification of those rules isn’t likely to be a quick, easy exercise.

It’s reasonable to speculate that the work might not be completed in time for Independence Day 2020.

It’s also obvious that whatever changes state lawmakers might be willing and able to implement won’t satisfy everyone.

Certainly, when new commonwealth rules were adopted in 2017 to allow consumers to buy explosive fireworks such as rockets and Roman candles, lawmakers and the Wolf administration didn’t anticipate — or at least didn’t express widespread concerns about publicly — the kind of problems that subsequently occurred.

Numerous communities in the state, including Altoona, witnessed a troubling degree of irresponsible fireworks behavior that was not only was a nuisance, but also posed a danger to lives and property at times.

While beefed-up police patrols and other measures were able to reduce the number of dangerous fireworks incidents during this year’s July 4 festivities, compared with the many that occurred in 2018, it has remained clear that a rethinking of the 2017 fireworks law — Act 43 — that repealed and replaced the Fireworks Act of 1939 must remain a priority.

The problem is that so many serious issues bog down in the General Assembly.

Based on the Sept. 24 hearing, the seeds already seem planted for that to happen regarding House Bill 1687, which aims to fix the unintended negative consequences for which the 2017 fireworks law paved the way.

At the hearing in question, officials representing local governments, law enforcement groups and emergency responders disagreed on whether “1687” would be enough of a fix or whether additional revisions would be necessary.

However, written hearing testimony from the state police expressed support for the measure as a means for “providing for the opportunity for people to celebrate with fireworks without exposing their neighbors to loud noises at all hours of the night.”

But the hearing also received written testimony from homeowners and the owners of small horse farms about the current fireworks law’s impact on children, livestock, pets and veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome, providing further evidence that not everyone ever will be satisfied as long as explosive fireworks remain legal.

The challenge facing the Legislature is to keep fireworks legal, but close the proverbial window as much as possible regarding the kinds of irresponsible practices that have been witnessed since the 2017 law went into effect.

House Bill 1687, which is being sponsored by Rep. Frank Ferry, R-Bucks, is geared toward limiting fireworks hours, offering guidance to local governments on reasonable fireworks controls, and increasing criminal penalties for violations.

Even Ferry doesn’t rule out the possible need for amendments to what he has drawn up, especially involving increased penalties.

It’s true that the 1939 fireworks law that limited consumers to sparklers and other novelty items — rules that were violated en masse — needed to give way to 21st century thinking. However, communities are different in terms of their layout and other features, making crafting of changes to rules difficult.

Changes that might be forthcoming, hopefully sooner rather than later, must be absent the shortsightedness and naivete contained in the 2017 law.

When a window to irresponsible conduct exists, no one should be surprised when it occurs.


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