Fireworks in Delaware are taking off … but not exploding

DOVER — Delaware is inching toward more fireworks freedom.
Legislatively it’s been a busy two years for pyrotechnics in the state.

Lawmakers decided last year, after nearly 65 years of a blanket prohibition on fireworks, to lift a portion of the restrictions.
In April 2018, a bill enabling the sale and use of non-explosive fireworks like sparklers or ground-based and hand-helds around the Fourth of July and New Years Eve was signed into law.

The well-received legislation rolled through both chambers of the General Assembly unopposed, but the state fire marshal’s office wasn’t enthusiastic about the new “risk.”

As a result, lawmakers built in a three-year clawback provision to quickly repeal it if “issues arose.”
“Sparklers and other items are dangerous to some of our most vulnerable populations such as children,” Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael Chionchio said at the time. “We believe that keeping them illegal and out of the hands of kids has helped us maintain a proven safety record here in Delaware.”

Punctuating their concerns, the fire marshal’s office noted that eleven fires resulted from consumer fireworks around last Fourth of July — nine occurring on the holiday. Also, three related arrests were made. Mr. Chionchio said the incidents constituted an uptick in fires compared to prior Fourth of July holidays.

Despite this, no injuries were reported and the estimated total cost of damage from the combined incidents was around $5,000.
Clearly undeterred, two new pieces of firework legislation cropped up in Legislative Hall recently — one ditches the original three-year sunset provision on the existing law and the other allows sale and use of non-explosive fireworks during Diwali.

Diwali is described as a 5-day festival of lights that’s celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains for which fireworks are an essential component. Though the date changes every year, the festival usually falls in October and November. This year, Diwali is on Oct. 27.

The bill was unopposed in both chambers and was signed into law earlier this month.

Removing sunset date
As of Saturday, the bill to remove the sunset date on fireworks had passed a House vote unopposed and was moving on to the senate. The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Michael Smith, R-Newark, said the reason for making the deregulation more permanent was “simple.”

“The intent was for people to be able to celebrate Fourth of July and New Years,” he said. “As you can tell by the bill, there are limitations and exceptions. Most importantly, this removes the sunset that was placed all together.
“The point is, people from Delaware were crossing state lines to purchase fireworks and Delaware should have a cut of those dollars since we border numerous states.”

Though the fire marshal’s office renewed its commitment to regulate and enforce based on how the laws were written, they’re still not thrilled. They recommend that residents not handle fireworks at all.
“The Delaware Office of the State Fire Marshal still asks the public to leave fireworks in the hands of professionals and attend a public licensed firework display near their community,” said Mr. Chionchio “The use of any type of firework, including sparklers, increases the danger of injury and/or fire.”

Preparing for July 4th.

Making an impact
Lawmakers, residents and vendors seem fairly unanimous in their support of the deregulation.
Though sales data isn’t available at the state level, the American Pyrotechnics Association claims that consumer fireworks are a $1 billion per year industry in the United States.

Since last year, small seasonal firework stands at local grocery stores and Walmarts have become a common sight, but pop-up entrepreneurs are gaining traction as well. According to the city of Dover, active licenses for tent sales were issued for the North Dover Shopping Center, Sam’s Club, Dover Mall and Safeway this year.
For the Lasher family of Dover, who operate the tents in the Safeway and Sam’s Club parking lots, the deregulation has made a big difference. Contacted by a friend in Pennsylvania last year, Kathleen Lasher was convinced to give vendoring a try.

“My friend was the one that told me that it was made legal here last year and got me set up with TNT Fireworks,” she said. “They provide the inventory, training and everything and we just report how much we sell. We had great sales last Fourth of July and this year we expanded to a second location and brought on a few extra people to help.”

For her part, Ms. Lasher is happy to see the state cozying up to the idea of fireworks. While she acknowledges that they can be dangerous if used improperly, she thinks the concern isn’t enough to ban them.
“We meet a lot of people here and most seem to have a good head on their shoulders,” she said. “Either way, they weren’t stopped from using them in previous years anyway. All the states around us sell them, so they’d just get them there.”

Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia all have restrictions similar to Delaware’s, but Pennsylvania — which allows most consumer fireworks, including aerials and explosives — is more liberal.

Getting some spark
Though she’s skeptical legislators will consider it at present, Ms. Lasher believes the fledgling firework industry in the state would really get some spark if all restrictions were lifted.

“Sales would be so much better if we could sell the stuff everyone is really looking for,” she said. “If I had a dollar for each person that comes up and says: ‘oh, you don’t sell the real fireworks?’ I’d be rich. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing, but in some ways it ends up being the same as before, because if customers really want the heavier fireworks, they’ll just go up to Pennsylvania to buy them.”

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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