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State fire marshal urges eventual ban on all fireworks

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 07. 2014 7:54PM

New Hampshire State Fire Marshal William Degnan is calling for a ban on all “reloadable mortar” style fireworks and eventually, a ban on all consumer fireworks in the state.

“It is an absolutely serious problem,” said Degnan. “These devices require an untrained person to make a decision about how to shoot these off; where they have to load it, stabilize it and then make sure they’re far enough away from it. That type of human intervention makes situations more prone to injury.”

On July 4, two adults were injured in a fireworks accident on Indian Valley Road in Pelham. One man suffered serious injury to a hand and was being treated at Massachusetts General Hospital. The other person’s injuries were minor, officials said. Their names have not been released.

The incident on July 4 was the second serious fireworks incident in Pelham in the last three years. In 2012, 13 people, including three children, were hurt in a fireworks incident and subsequent house fire on 40 Dodge Road.

Both accidents involved a legal consumer firework known as a “reloadable mortar,” which requires assembly and allows the user to fire up to three explosives at a time.

The Dodge Road accident prompted several movements in town to either ban all consumer fireworks or to enact some type of fireworks ordinance that would include a permitting process. Both options were met with intense opposition from residents and were eventually rejected in split votes by selectmen.

State Rep. Charlene Takesian, with help from fellow representatives, tried to get certain types of consumer fireworks — including the “reloadable mortars” — back on the state’s banned fireworks list. Pelham Fire Chief James Midgeley and selectmen chairman Ed Gleason testified in Concord for the ban. However, according to Takesian and Midgeley, lobbying efforts by the fireworks industry pushed the vote in their favor and the ban was defeated.

Degnan said since the ban was defeated, his office has been trying to inform residents of the dangers of these types of fireworks. However, pamplets and lectures can only do so much when it comes to safety.

“We’ve been trying to educate people on the hazards of these explosives, and I do say that intentionally; they are explosives by design,” said Degnan. “But education doesn’t always work.”

This most recent incident is stirring up the same debate among officials over whether fireworks should be banned or regulated in town. While Takesian and Gleason both hold the same position — that fireworks are dangerous and there should be some regulation on their use in town, if not a full out ban — both are reluctant to put anything into motion this time around.

“You can’t protect people from themselves,” said Takesian. “You can only legislate so much.”

Gleason agreed.

“I’m at my wits’ end,” said Gleason. “My personal philosophy is that these things are dangerous and should not be for public usage. I’m really reluctant to do anything again because it was shot down strongly the first time. But at the end of the day, these things are dangerous and should be off the damned market.”

In 2012, Gleason voted for the ban. Selectman Bill McDevitt voted against the ban. Three years after the vote, McDevitt holds to his position.

“I don’t think it should be regulated,” said McDevitt. “People need to make those decisions on their own, the decision to not use fireworks. I’ve known since I was 6 years old that fireworks are dangerous. The last time I used fireworks I must have been about 12 so this isn’t coming from someone who loves fireworks. I don’t use fireworks and I prefer to not be in places where fireworks are being used. I just think people should be able to make their own decisions.”

McDevitt said firerworks accidents always stir debate, but he would be surprised if legislation were to come out of it.

“There will be some discussion, but it usually dies out pretty quickly,” said McDevitt.

A handful of states have outright bans on fireworks, including neighboring Massachusetts.

Many states have fireworks ordinances and regulations and allow cities and towns to adopt all, some or none of the state’s regulations based on local voting. New Hampshire does have a list of fireworks that are banned for consumer usage. The “reloadable mortar” fireworks were banned for consumer use throughout the state until 2011 when they were removed from the list.

Somersworth has a fireworks ordinance that’s based off the state’s regulations.

Former State Fire Marshal Don Bliss was the interim fire chief in Somersworth at the time the ordinance was last amended in 2012. The ordinance has a strict permitting process for consumer fireworks usage in town, including required approval from both the fire and police chiefs before any personal fireworks can be used.

Bliss is vice president of the National Fire Protection Association, an organization that advocates for fire prevention and safety. Bliss said his position is in line with that of the NFPA in that he and his organization believe that fireworks should be allowed only for licensed, organized displays and banned for consumer use.

“Consumer fireworks are deceptively dangerous,” said Bliss. “The tip of a sparkler can reach temperatures of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Considering that wood burns at 575 degrees Fahrenheit, you can imagine the serious burn that tip could cause or how that could ignite clothing and start a fire.”

Somersworth Fire Chief Keith Hoyle said his department received no fireworks-related complaints this past weekend. Hoyle said “professionally” he supports Midgeley’s desire or ability to restrict what types of fireworks can be used in his town.

Midgeley said he’d be curious what would happen if the issue were brought to the town’s people in a referendum vote. Midgeley said the reloadable mortars were banned throughout the state up until 2011 when they were taken off the banned list.

“I’m more concerned now than ever,” said Midgeley. “There was a lot of testimony from the fireworks lobbyists in 2012 that this type of thing (40 Dodge Road fire) would never happen again and that fireworks are safe. Now two years later — in my town — we have an almost identical situation. If these were still banned, then this kid would still have the full function of his hand.”

Right now, there are no efforts in either the state Legislature or in Pelham to enact a ban or other fireworks-related ordinance.

Midgeley urges people to take as many precautions as possible if they’re going to use fireworks, including keeping children away and not to consume alcohol when using them.

“Common sense goes a long way,” said Midgeley. “Read all of the safety information.”

The recent incident on Indian Valley Road is under investigation by the State Fire Marshal’s office and Pelham police.

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