As the Fourth nears, fire and police officials warn about fireworks

Customer Bob Teixeira, of Marion, Mass., tries to decide which firework to purchase at 3 Finger Eddie's Fireworks stand on Clarks Falls Road across from the Pilot Truck Stop in North Stonington on Saturday.
Customer Bob Teixeira, of Marion, Mass., tries to decide which firework to purchase at 3 Finger Eddie's Fireworks stand on Clarks Falls Road across from the Pilot Truck Stop in North Stonington on Saturday. Dana Jensen The Day Buy Photo

Colorful displays light up the skies above back yards and beaches throughout the region this time of year.

Big booms can be heard nightly in almost every neighborhood.

But with the Fourth of July approaching and fireworks season nearing its height, local fire and police officials are urging area residents to keep their pyrotechnic celebrations safe and legal.

"If you're going to use them, read the directions and understand what you're doing," said Richard E. Morris, fire marshal and public safety director of East Lyme, on Saturday.

Connecticut law allows the use of sparklers, which are hand-held fireworks, and fountains, which are set off from the ground in cardboard tubes or containers, by anyone 16 or older.

Fountains, while not technically fireworks, contain 100 grams or less of gunpowder or other pyrotechnic mixture and are widely available in grocery and discount stores. In the past few weeks, retailers also have started selling them at outdoor tents throughout the region.

Illegal fireworks include bottle rockets, whistling devices sometimes called "Piccolo Petes," Roman candles, cherry bombs and M-80-type devices. Only licensed pyrotechnicians can set off display fireworks, which are aerial shells, mines and comets fired from racks or other containers.

Morris, the fire marshal, said the illegal products are widely available on line and in other states.

"We're seeing commercial grade cakes, boxes of fireworks that shoot off rockets, all the time," said Morris. "I imagine what I saw five years ago will be quadrupled next week, because they're so accessible to people."

He said some people make their own fireworks at home, which can be disastrous.

"I went to a fire years ago where a guy was making fireworks and blew up his house," Morris said.

State police detective Joseph T. Lombardi of the Fire & Explosion Investigative Unit said people should avoid setting off fireworks when they are intoxicated and should use them away from structures. Accidents happen all the time, according to Lombardi, who said he went to The William W. Backus Hospital last year to interview somebody who had been hurt.

"I said, 'I'm here for the fireworks victim,' '' Lombardi said. "The nurse said, 'Which one?' ''

In recent years, both Morris and Lombardi have seen illegal fireworks displays that draw hundreds of people to a neighborhood. Morris went to one show where all the neighbors had chipped in to buy the fireworks, which ended up being confiscated.

Police closed down two illegal shows in Old Lyme last July and arrested eight people, according to Lombardi, who said one incident resulted in a lawsuit involving an injured child.

Enforcement is problematic, because local authorities can't be everywhere at once, Morris said. State authorities are called in when fireworks are confiscated, because the devices have to be properly stored and disposed of.

Morris said the fireworks industry has one of the biggest lobbies, but Connecticut legislators have maintained the existing regulations for several years.

William A. Weimer, vice president of Youngstown, Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks, would like to see Connecticut legalize the full line of consumer fireworks. Forty-six states allow some level of consumer fireworks, he said, while Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Delaware allow none.

According to Weimer, the majority of fireworks are imported from China, where the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory tests them at the factory level to ensure they meet safety and performance standards.

He said 234.1 million pounds of fireworks were imported into the U.S. in 2011, which is double the amount imported in 1994, and that fireworks-related injuries have decreased from 12,5000 a year to 9,500.

"The products clearly are better than ever before," Weimer said. "If you look at the products and shake them, no powder comes out..they are constructed better today than ever before."

k.florin@theday.com

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