Fireworks: Statutes, Enforcement Upcoming Changes

Approved Sparkler List

FireworksWhy doesn’t the Pasco Sheriff’s Office stop the illegal use of fireworks?

In 2006, largely as a result of increased community concern, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office attempted to enforce Florida’s fireworks law over the July 4th holiday period. The results were decidedly mixed, with few fireworks confiscated and only two criminal cases made, largely a result of the fireworks law, Florida Statute Chapter 791, which is hard to enforce.

A similar enforcement effort was made during the same holiday period in 2007. More fireworks were confiscated, but no criminal cases were made.  Earlier in 2007, with the support of the Sheriff’s Office, the Pasco County commission attempted to create a local ordinance that would be easier to enforce limits on the use of fireworks in our community.

However, at the same time, the Florida Legislature created a Consumer Fireworks Task Force to study the issue and make recommendations in early 2008. The law creating the Task Force also PROHIBITED local governments from enacting ANY new laws to regulate fireworks, thus Pasco County’s ordinance could not be approved. The Task Force also prohibited any new permanent or temporary facilities to sell fireworks beyond the current number that was approved in 2006. The Task Force made recommendations to the state legislature for fireworks enforcement last year, but to date, no new changes to state law have been made.

What are the problems with the current statute?

Fire ExtinguisherThe state fireworks law is a complicated statute reflecting the competing interests of public safety and free enterprise. “Fireworks” are defined in a fairly complicated manner and there are exceptions. Sparklers approved by the State Fire Marshall’s office (it publishes an annual list) are not fireworks. In addition items labeled “novelties” or “trick noisemakers” are not fireworks. Examples of these have names such as “snake,” “glowworm,” “party popper” and “trick match” among others.

It is NOT a crime to possess illegal fireworks although actual illegal fireworks may be confiscated. It is a crime to sell, offer to sell, use or explode fireworks, which is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine. However, fireworks can be imported, sold and used to frighten birds from “agricultural works and fish hatcheries.” Fireworks vendors have utilized this exception widely by having customers sign a form stating that the fireworks they are selling will be used for these purposes. They are then allowed to sell what would otherwise be illegal fireworks in Florida.

Primarily enforced by the State Fire Marshall’s Office and local law enforcement, few criminal cases against the vendors and users of fireworks have been made because the law is difficult to enforce. There are three major reasons:

a. The definition of fireworks includes a list of what isn’t a firework. Thus citizens are free to use these products, even though they can be dangerous and cause injuries (see related safety article).

b. Witnesses.  For law enforcement to cite someone for using illegal fireworks, we either have to witness the use or have someone who did. As a practical matter, unless the deputy witnesses the use, you don’t have a case. The person complaining may have only heard the use. Unfortunately, our experience is that even if you have a civilian witness illegal fireworks use, he or she won’t be eager to testify if and when the case goes to trial, which could be months down the road.

c. The “scare birds” defense. Sellers can sell otherwise unlawful fireworks if they will be used to frighten birds from agricultural works and fish hatcheries. In terms of making a sales case, sellers almost always get customers to fill out a form stating that they are purchasing the fireworks for that purpose. Even though the vast majority of fireworks sold are for entertainment purposes by citizens, that release form has been successfully used as a defense in a sales case.

How was the proposed Pasco County Fireworks ordinance going to change this?

ExplosionAs a result of the difficulty associated with enforcement of Chapter 791, a growing number of local communities have passed ordinances, largely aimed at regulating the sale of fireworks.The Pasco ordinance would have created a process whereby fireworks vendors would be required to comply with a number of standards in order to lawfully sell fireworks in Pasco County. It was modeled after an ordinance passed a few years ago in Pinellas County. As stated above, the Florida Legislature prohibited Pasco County from doing so when it decided to create the Consumer Fireworks Task Force, which provided a report to the state legislature last year, but the current law has not been changed at this time.

Fireworks safety issues from the National Fire Protection Association

  • CharredIn 2005, 95 percent of emergency room fireworks injuries involved fireworks that Federal regulations permit consumers to use.
  • In 2005, 10,800 fireworks-related injuries were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms, the second highest total in the decade of 1996-2005.
  • About 48 percent of 2005 emergency room fireworks-related injuries were to the extremities and 44 percent were to the head; 54 percent of these injuries were burns, while 29 percent were contusions and lacerations.
  • Nearly half the people injured by fireworks were under the age of 15.The risk of fireworks injury was nearly three times as high for children ages 10-14 as for the general population.
  • Sparklers,fountains, and novelties alone accounted for 26 percent of the emergency room fireworks injuries in 2005.Males accounted for 69 percent of fireworks injuries that same year.
  • On Independence Day in a typical year, more U.S. fires are reported than on any other day, and fireworks account for half of those fires, more than any other cause of fires.
  • July 5 accounted for the second highest number of fires. Some areas may also see heightened fireworks use around New Year’s Day, Chinese New Year, or Mardi Gras.
  • In 2004, fireworks caused an estimated 1,500 total structure fires and 600 vehicle fires reported to fire departments.
  • These 2,200 fires resulted in an estimated 20 civilian injuries and $21 million in direct property damage. In 2004, there were no reported civilian deaths, but 900 home structure fires were caused by fireworks.
  • Nearly 30,000 fireworks-related structure, vehicle, or outdoor fires were reported per year in 2000-2004.