Fire in the sky!6/26/2013
Nothing seems to bring out America’s pyromania-like urges more than the Fourth of July. After all, what better way to celebrate our country’s independence than by lighting up a brick of Black Cat firecrackers, a few bottle rockets and… losing a finger or two in the process? Hearing is optional as well.
Let’s be honest, on the Fourth of July, we all tend to go a little bit pyro, and it comes out in full force during this fireworks-obsessed holiday. But in a state where fireworks are outlawed, such displays are a rarity reserved for authorized celebrations only. As exciting as they might be, these explosions have been known to cause injury and arrest among local citizens, as well as competition and bragging rights among event organizers over which city, county or event hosts the best display.
Despite our penchant for public self destruction on this glorious holiday, the act of simply shooting off fireworks is illegal in Iowa. This is no secret. But, oddly, firework possession is not. What gives?
Iowa Code says a person who breaks the law by selling or exploding an unpermitted firework or display may be charged with a simple misdemeanor, which can come with a fine of no less than $250.
“However, the council of a city or a county board of supervisors may, upon application in writing, grant a permit for the display of fireworks by municipalities, fair associations, amusement parks, and other organizations or groups of individuals approved by the city or the county board of supervisors when the fireworks display will be handled by a competent operator, but no such permit shall be required for the display of fireworks at the Iowa state fairgrounds by the Iowa state fair board, at incorporated county fairs, or at district fairs receiving state aid. Sales of fireworks for such display may be made for that purpose only,” states section 727.2 of the code.
“It kind of happened back in the ’70s. There were just too many accidents involving fireworks,” explained Des Moines fire inspector Theodore Jefferson. “Specifically, kids were involved with the accidents and without proper adult supervision. A lot of these ordinance were large; I mean they were injuring kids (resulting in) missing fingers and hands and facial injuries and that type of thing. It was tough to regulate, so the state decided then that it was easier to regulate it by making it illegal.”
Firework companies often provide a professional “shooter” for events, said Jefferson. The shooter must be licensed by the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the performance has to have a permit from the local city council.
Authorized firework presentations have requirements that officials must enforce. For example, demonstrators must have liability insurance coverage and clean criminal records, Jefferson said.
“We don’t want terrorists running around with explosives, for lack of a better way to put it,” he explained.
The fire department then goes to the area of the presentation site to inspect the premises to ensure the space allows for proper crowd control and safety.
“Then sometimes we will have them demonstrate some fireworks that we’re not familiar with,” such as new ones to the market, Jefferson said.
Enforcing the law
“We can say, ‘Don’t do it’ all we want to, but people are going to (light fireworks). The statistics back us up that they’re going to do it anyway,” said Urbandale Fire Chief Jerry Holt.
Still, rebel fireworks users be warned, Urbandale police officer Randy Peterson said there is a “zero tolerance policy” always in effect for non-ATF-certified amateurs, Fourth of July or not.
“If we catch you shooting them off, you will be cited; you will be arrested,” Peterson said. “People get pretty upset when their neighbors are shooting off fireworks. It scares the dogs; it keeps (neighbors) up.”
Urbandale police issued 45 citations last year, but there were no arrests, he said.
“We’re afraid of fires,” Peterson admitted. “We had a couple fires last year, or two years ago, where we actually had fires started because of the fireworks.”
If a firework complaint call is made to a residence, Peterson said the officer dispatched to the home will issue a ticket and ask the property owner to destroy the fireworks. If the home owner refuses, the police will confiscate and destroy the fireworks and likely enforce penalties for the crime.
“Most people (comply with the law), but on the Fourth of July, you hear people lighting off fireworks,” Jefferson said. “It’s tough to keep up with all the complaints. If we find them, we ask them to put it out. And if they don’t, we put it out.”
“We just get a big bucket of water and throw them in there and get rid of them,” Peterson added. “People use to think we would go out and take them all and we would have our own firework show like some of the TV shows like ‘Reno 911’ and stuff like that. We don’t do that. We have expectations of our officers and how we conduct ourselves. We’re not above the law. We’re not better than anyone else.”
There may be different consumer fireworks restriction and rules in each city. Be sure to check with local officials before buying and using a firework product.
“Safety is our primary goal. We want to make sure that we have a great event, but it’s done so in a safe manner,” Jefferson said.
Unfortunately, it seems many consumer-grade fireworks bring the most collateral damage, he said. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) found that 83 percent of emergency room firework injuries in 2010 involved consumer-grade fireworks.
“When you think fireworks, you think, ‘Well, how could somebody enjoy fireworks safely?’ ” Holt said. “The official line is, you should go and let the professionals put on the show and enjoy those types of shows, like the Fourth of July presentation that the community of Urbandale puts on and most other communities as well. Most people think, ‘Well I’ll play with sparklers, because they’re OK,’ but of all the injuries, sparklers are the leading cause of people being injured from fireworks.”
The NFPA found that 43 percent of emergency room injuries from fireworks in 2010 were from sparklers, fountains and novelties. Sparklers alone accounted for 27 percent.
“What makes (sparklers) so dangerous is that they burn at 1,200 degrees. Probably everyone in this country has played with a sparkler at one time or another,” Holt said. “You know how they turn red? If you throw them down and someone comes along and steps on it, they’re going to be burned.”
Holt and Jefferson both stressed three firework safety tips: 1. Don’t let kids play with them — even sparklers — without an adult; 2. Don’t involve alcohol with consumer fireworks; and 3. Have a bucket of water close by.
“I would also suggest that if you’re using the snakes and sparklers that you do it on a flat surface and not in a dry, grassy area,” Jefferson advised. “You have your neighbors to worry about. You don’t need lawn fires or grass fires of any kind.”
Holt stressed that kids and teens should not attempt to use sparklers any other way than as advised on the warning label. With YouTube videos and TV shows showing dangerous stunts, he worries teens might follow bad examples.
“I can’t imagine the guilt someone would have of having their children be around fireworks and lose an eye or lose a hand or, worse yet, lose a life,” Holt said. “It was in Des Moines several years ago that someone was shooting fireworks out of a car. It caught on fire, and someone lost a life because of that.
“Fourth of July is supposed to be a festive time. It’s certainly not the time that someone should have to worry about putting an eye out or a burn, which to me is the worst injury someone could have. It’s such a painful injury. It takes so long for it to heal and certainly the kinds of burns we’re talking about with a 1,200-degree sparkler, it can be a third-degree burn.”
It’s a burn that can cause painful injury all the way down to the bone, he said.
Holt explained that most third-degree burns require a trip to a burn unit to treat the injury. The only burn unit in Iowa is more than 100 miles away from the metro in Iowa City.
“If you have a burn that’s that deep, every day while they’re treating you, they will have to scrub that burn,” Holt said. “Even with the pain medication, you can’t kill that enough to manage that pain, so it’s a very painful process.”
“We’ve been pretty lucky in Des Moines because of our enforcement of the state law,” Jefferson said. “Plus people have common sense. Most people try to stay safe during the holidays.”
So leave the risk to the professionals, they said, in which case, there are plenty of firework displays to help scratch that pyro itch.
Whether it is the neighborhood or city festival show or a Friday night Iowa Cubs game, exponential opportunities exist to catch a breath-taking professional firework display in the area. One of the more noted experiences is Urbandale’s famous Fourth of July celebration.
Urbandale Fourth of July committee member Dean Hatch has attended the sub-committee in charge of fireworks for 10 years and argues that the celebration is the best around.
“Of course we’re biased, but we like to think we put on a pretty good festival and a pretty good Fourth of July celebration,” Hatch said.
Urbandale has used its $23,000 firework budget to procure a multi-year contract with J and M Displays, a Midwest firework company.
“They do a lot of shows in Iowa. In checking references, we’ve found they’re one of the best,” Hatch said. “We just haven’t found anyone better.”
By signing an agreement with J and M Displays, Urbandale receives an additional 15 percent discount with its firework purchases.
“We feel like we have one of the best displays in Iowa and in the metro area,” said Hatch. “We’ve been doing this celebration now for over 50 years, so there’s quite a history in Urbandale for the Fourth of July celebration. We feel that people know that, and they know what to expect.”
While other areas use tax dollars to fund their fireworks, which usually cost thousands of dollars, Hatch explained how Urbandale went against the tax-funded option and found another way to pick up the tab for the event.
“We are a private group that does all of its own fundraising through the sale of Urbandale Fourth of July buttons. We have an amusement company that comes in, and we get part of the ticket proceeds, and we have vendors that come in, and they also have to pay a fee for their site,” Hatch said. “So we basically raise our money through the celebration and through the button sales.”
This year’s “Celebrating Traditions with U” firework display will be shot from its usual location at the Walker Johnston Park on the west side at 10 p.m.
Iowa Cubs assistant general manager Nate Teut said that, although the cost of fireworks is high, it is worth it for the entertainment value they bring to every Friday night game.
“I’m not sure if they want us to release the cost because I don’t know if they give us a better deal than some other places do, but it’s definitely worth the investment. I mean, we make our money back and then some,” Teut said. “There’s no question. It’s by far our most popular promotion that we do.”
The I-Cubs Friday night fireworks tradition has been going on for around 10 years, he said, and he wants fans to know that, although there are fireworks after every Friday night home game, the annual Fourth of July show is special in comparison. This year’s celebration is scheduled for the July 3 Iowa Cubs vs. Memphis Redbirds game and has a bigger budget, which affords Principal Park to put on an even grander fireworks show. It might just give Urbandale’s display a run for its money, so it’s a good thing they’re on different days.
“It’s one of our biggest days of the year, and it’s arguably one of the best shows in town, and we promote it that way,” Teut said.
Regardless of which display has the most explosive show, for the most part, fireworks can provide good, old fashioned family fun. Despite the consequences, there will always be those who light up their own fireworks at home.
“If we catch you shooting them off, we’re going to seize them and you’re going to be issued a citation,” Peterson said. “Save your money, leave (fireworks) to the professionals.” CV
Rachel Sinn is an intern from Iowa State University, where she was an editor and senior news reporter at the Iowa State Daily. She will receive her bachelor’s degree in journalism upon the completion of her summer internship at Cityview.