Backyard fireworks illegal in Massachusetts

  •  Nick Switz, of Bethlehem, Connecticut, browses at Phantom Fireworks in Hinsdale, New Hampshire. JACK EVANS 

  • Phantom Fireworks in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, sells to some out-of-state customers. JACK EVANS

Published: 6/30/2016 10:47:04 PM

With the Fourth of July weekend on the horizon, families in western Massachusetts can look toward Amherst, South Hadley and Greenfield to watch fireworks displays. But they cannot put on their own shows, at least not legally — Massachusetts is one of three states with a total ban on consumer fireworks.

Even so, area police said the holiday sees an uptick in the number of fireworks-related complaints; the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services has offered a slew of online materials about the dangers of fireworks; and fireworks retailers in New Hampshire said they receive business from a high number of out-of-state customers, including from Massachusetts.

Massachusetts — which, like Delaware and New Jersey, bans all consumer fireworks — defines fireworks as any article “prepared for the purpose of producing a visible or audible effect by combustion, explosion, deflagration, or detonation.”

Selling fireworks in Massachusetts can result in arrest without a warrant with imprisonment of up to a year and fines of $100 to $1,000. Possession of fireworks comes with a fine of $10 to $100 and confiscation of the fireworks.

Still, fireworks usage does not always result in fines, Hadley Police Sgt. Mitchell Kuc said.

“We use a progressive method of enforcement,” he said. “If they’re fully cooperative, it’s a verbal warning.”

Kuc also said fireworks complaints are treated similarly to noise complaints or other nuisance calls, and uncooperative revelers could face fines beyond those dictated by the fireworks law.

“If we come across someone who decides they want to continue shooting off fireworks … we could certainly impose not only the $100 fine, but we can also impose our municipal bylaws with regards to noise,” he said.

Similarly, Amherst Police Lt. Jerry Millar said officers usually have a good rapport with people, meaning action beyond confiscation of fireworks rarely has to be taken.

He also noted the importance of awareness of fireworks laws and violations this year, given fire hazards increased by recent dry weather.

‘Don’t do it again’

The protocol to treat fireworks complaints as noise complaints was consistent with the Northampton Police Department as well, Capt. John D. Cartledge said. In Northampton, those in possession of fireworks are usually cooperative.

“More often than not, by the time we get there, it’s over with, and they don’t do it again,” he said.

And while the weeks surrounding the Fourth of July do see an increase in illegal fireworks usage, complaints are often few in number. Millar said Amherst Police usually investigate about a dozen incidents around the holiday.

Hatfield Lt. Mike Dekoschak said his department gets a call or two around the Fourth of July and usually none through the rest of the year, and fireworks are usually gone by the time officers arrive.

“On an annual basis, we get less than 10 fireworks complaints,” Kuc said. “Considering how many residents there are, it’s not a lot.”

According to police logs, the Northampton Police Department received a total of 48 calls related to fireworks in 2015, including complaints in which the caller was unsure if they were hearing fireworks or some other sound, and not including calls regarding permitted fireworks events.

Of those 48 calls, four resulted in officers speaking to people who said they had finished using the fireworks, would stop using the fireworks or would be quieter in general. One resulted in confiscation of fireworks. Fifteen of those calls came in the two weeks before or two weeks after July 4. Most of the 48 calls resulted in officers searching the area and finding nothing.

Thus far in 2016, Northampton police have fielded 10 such complaints, according to the log, which is current through June 22. Though police did confirm the use of fireworks or find fireworks-related materials in some cases, no fines or confiscations have been made this year.

Across the border

Fireworks may be illegal in Massachusetts, but in neighboring New Hampshire, there are relatively few restrictions on them. In towns like Hinsdale, about 45 minutes from Northampton, fireworks retailers offer an array of colorful explosives.

On Wednesday afternoon, the parking lot of Phantom Fireworks, a national chain with a Hinsdale location, illustrated the out-of-state draw. Cars displayed plates from New Hampshire and Vermont as well as from Connecticut and New York, both of which have partial fireworks bans.

“We tell our customers they are responsible for what they do with the fireworks after they leave here,” said Mary Bebey, manager of Phantom Fireworks in Hinsdale. “What we sell is legal in New Hampshire. It’s up to them to know what’s legal in their state.”

Bebey said she sees a mix of in-state and out-of-state customers.

Michael Dapkus, who owns Stateline Fireworks in Winchester, New Hampshire, said his business serves mostly out-of-state customers — as many as 70 percent come from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York.

Dapkus said he has been using fireworks for 50 years and is also a former police officer and paramedic.

He believes most people in states like Massachusetts want bans lifted but a few authorities keep them in place.

“I respect every single one of those (authorities) because I used to work hand-in-hand with them,” he said. “There’s a few that don’t like fireworks, and they’re in that position of power.”

Safety concerns

But authorities like the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services maintain that fireworks are unsafe.

The department’s website includes a recent page called “Leave Fireworks to the Professionals,” which emphasizes the safety of children and contains links to releases on the dangers of fireworks and a list of sanctioned fireworks shows.

According to one of those releases, between 2006 and 2015, fireworks caused 775 major fire and explosion incidents as well as 47 severe burn injuries. Jennifer Mieth, spokeswoman for the state fire marshal’s office, noted that number includes only burns covering at least 5 percent of the body, and not injuries such as those to eyes, minor burns or damage to fingers.

The most recent death mentioned in that release was of a Gloucester woman in December 2003.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s most recent fireworks report is for 2014. In that year, about 10,500 people were injured and 11 people died nationwide from fireworks accidents.

Dapkus said he recognizes the power of fireworks, but he believes legalization could help prevent accidents, because it would allow retailers to educate customers on precautions like how to pour water over spent fireworks, how to make sure fireworks don’t tip over and what to do with duds.

Bebey said Phantom also prizes customer safety. Employees can advise customers as they shop, and the store hands out pamphlets on consumer safety.

Dapkus said fireworks are not dissimilar from propane grills or lawnmowers — they can be dangerous, but are safe if you’re properly educated. He’s been shooting them off for decades and still has his eyes and digits, he said, and he wants to impart that care to customers.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Dapkus said.

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