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As fireworks sales boom, complaints are skyrocketing

Fireworks are booming all across the country, all throughout the night, keeping Americans awake and jolting them to attention with loud cracks from the sky.

In southeastern Connecticut, as the popularity of at-home fireworks displays has exploded, calls to police have skyrocketed.

The New London Police Department has seen a 594% increase in fireworks complaints. The City of Groton has seen an 320% increase. State Police have seen a “definite uptick” across Connecticut. 

And it isn’t just happening here. 

In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh announced a staggering increase in the number of complaints about fireworks to Boston Police - a 2,300%increase compared to last year. The Chicago Tribune reported on June 23 that fireworks-related 911 calls in Chicago were up 736% this year compared to this time last year.

On June 19, The New York Times reported that in the first half of June, the city received 1,737 fireworks complaints, 80 times as many as the same period last year.

New London Police Capt. Brian Wright said that in June the department cataloged 132 calls about fireworks - an average of at least four per night. That represents a 952% increase from this time last year, when there were just 19 complaints.

In actuality, the number of complaints is probably closer to 200 because when multiple callers complain about noise in the same area, the department often combines the complaints, Wright said.

“It’s off the charts,” he said.

The City of Groton Police Department has received 21 calls this year, up 5 from June 2019. The Town of Groton Police Department has received 11 fireworks complaints since February, with seven in June. The department did not provide figures for last year. Lt. James Bee said oftentimes police are unable to track down where the fireworks are coming from or who is shooting them off.

In Norwich, Police Chief Pat Daley said there’s been “a definite uptick” in fireworks complaints. East Lyme Police Chief Mike Finkelstein said police received six fireworks complaints this June - with most coming from Niantic - compared to two last year. Stonington police had four complaints last June and five this year.

Detective Paul G. Makuc of the Connecticut State Police Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit, said his phone has been ringing non-stop since the end of May. Makuc, who is responsible for licensing for fireworks displays statewide, said that the increase in at-home fireworks wasn’t a shock to him.

He said he anticipated backyard fireworks were going to be a problem given the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the cancellation of many fireworks displays. The lack of professional displays combined with a shortage of entertainment while most sports and concerts remain canceled and amusement parks are closed, was a recipe for an increase in fireworks, he said. 

“I thought, ‘this is going to really prompt people to go out and purchase their own illegal fireworks and do them on their own,’” he said. “I anticipated that there would be an increase in the use and these complaints.”

And he was right. 

Makuc said that state police haven’t been able to locate the source of illegal fireworks, but knows that people tend to travel to New Hampshire and Pennsylvania to purchase them. The department is actively working on tracking down those setting them off and those selling them, he said. 

William Weimer, vice president of Phantom Fireworks, the nation's largest consumer based retailer of fireworks, said he also thinks a lack of professional displays has led to a massive boom in fireworks sales this year. The company has been selling legal fireworks in a tent outside the Crystal Mall in Waterford.

“We have seen the largest early sale of early fireworks we’ve ever seen in our company history. It has been phenomenal,” said Weimer. 

Weimer said that when the company’s stores closed due to COVID-19, the thought was they were done for the year, but then they “were just knocked over” by a spike in sales. 

Normally, he said, the company sees a lot of sales around Memorial Day Weekend, then there’s a lull and then there’s a spike again before July 4th. But this year, sales started coming in earlier, in mid-May, “and we had the biggest volume of early sales that we’ve ever had in our company history,” he said.  

Weimer said he thinks that the closure of the entertainment industry - including professional sports games and concerts that often feature fireworks - has contributed to the boom, along with the fact that people have been cooped up in their homes for months and are slowly starting to head back outside.

 “And then you throw in the fact that there are going to be very few public displays, when people want to have fun, blow off some steam and celebrate the holiday with fireworks," he said.

In New London, Wright also said the spike is likely a side-effect of the state’s stay-at-home order, but that doesn’t justify constant disturbances across the city.

The department, he said, is actively working on tracking down the culprits causing mayhem in normally quiet neighborhoods. He said he understands why so many people are complaining. 

“In addition to being just a nuisance, people are being deprived of sleep, pets are being terrorized in their homes, our individuals living with PTSD are struggling with this. It’s a real hazard,” he said.

New London police have arrested five people recently for possession and discharge of fireworks. The department recently seized a number of illegal fireworks.

 New London Mayor Michael Passero said the city is working diligently on a solution, and recognizes that the problem definitely isn’t unique to the area. 

“Every city in the state has (received complaints) as far as I know. It’s not a phenomenon unique to New London,” said Passero.

Residents are calling nearly every day, said the mayor, complaining about the noise that is causing them, and their pets, stress and anxiety.

The city is working closely with police and the fire marshal to tackle the problem, he said, but it’s a difficult task. 

“People think we can just snap our fingers and take care of it, but that’s not the case,” Passero said. “The city is doing all it can to enforce the existing laws and keep people safe.”

Wright said that community and police collaboration is imperative for solving this problem.  “If you know someone that's doing this please advise us, because that will give us a better chance of catching the individual and controlling the situation,” he said. “It all comes down to knowing where it’s going on and catching people doing it.”

Residents are asked to call their police department’s non-emergency line when they hear explosions nearby.

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said he is urging residents to be considerate of neighbors and not use illegal fireworks. He suggested it will continue to be a problem after the holiday is over. 

Day Staff Writer Julia Bergman contributed to this report.

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