When I think of America, I think of my friends and family. I think of the freedom to cruise down highways, deciding where to turn next as I drive. I think about good times at the Lake of Ozarks. I think about the Royals and the Chiefs, and how they would win if only I could yell a little bit louder.
All of my laughter, all of my love has come from here — from America. Tears well up in my eyes as I think about how much I love my city, my state and my country. I am so lucky to live here.
I am not alone when I say that when I think of America, I also think about the Fourth of July and shooting off fireworks. Sadly, there are many communities throughout the country that have decreed fireworks illegal. While I understand the rationale behind this, I do not agree with the end result. Banning fireworks smacks of banning my patriotism.
While the sale and use of fireworks has been outlawed in many communities in the Kansas City metropolitan area, Riverside is not one of them. Since Gordon Fowlston took over as fire chief there two years ago, he has begun to enforce the ordinances already on the books, but he has not sought the elimination of private firework use.
“Fireworks don’t kill or hurt people,” Fowlston said. “Guns don’t kill or hurt people. Cars don’t kill or hurt people. There’s always a human being connected.”
Instead, Fowlston has tried to find an alternative — fireworks safety training. This is the first year for the program in Riverside; a program Fowlston calls a “unique thing.” Working in conjunction with the National Council on Fireworks Safety, a fireworks trade group, Fowlston provided training for 100 young people recently, while about 50 children deemed too young sat and listened to the program with their parents. Despite the wet, overcast day, Fowlston thought the inaugural program was a success.
“I think from what I can tell this program is unique,” he said, “in the sense that we are trying to be more proactive than reactive. We are trying to teach people how to avoid the injuries, instead of just treating them.”
It seems to me that so much of what government does, whether city councils, school boards, or police and fire departments, is reactive instead of proactive. It is refreshing to see when a public entity adopts the latter approach, as Fowlston has.
The relationship between Fowlston and fireworks vendors has not been an easy one. Fowlston admits that he got off to a rocky start with the vendors, who have been a big source of revenue for the city over the years, between the $1,500 vendor licensing fee and the sales tax generated.
“When I came on board two years ago, I started enforcing fire codes and fireworks codes that were not being enforced,” Fowlston said. “There’s been a lot of tension, but that is why I tried to team up with them and promote the safety of it, which in turn promotes our vendors.”
In a display of mutual understanding and cooperation, the vendors contributed all of the fireworks used during the fireworks safety training program. This worked out to be a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Fowlston said the banning of fireworks should be a choice that each city makes for itself. He does believe that many cities make a mistake when they try to ban certain commercial fireworks, but not others.
“It’s all or nothing,” Fowlston said. “We do have an ordinance banning bottle rockets. It is an enforcement nightmare.”
While the use of fireworks is allowed in the city in which I live, Lee’s Summit, “each household discharging fireworks within the city limits” is expected to have a permit which can be obtained for free from an authorized vendor or city hall. Fireworks can only be shot off July 2-4.
The city does ban the use of “rockets on a stick,” “Roman candles” and “missiles with fins or rudders for the purpose of achieving aerodynamic flight.” (www.lees-summit.mo.us/content/fire14.cfm) One, I did not know any of these rules and, two, who knew the Fourth of July was so complex.
I imagine all of this is also an “enforcement nightmare,” as Fowlston so aptly stated. I’ve shot off fireworks frequently and did not know I needed a permit. Whoops, I better throw those missiles back and hope any flight they achieve is not quite aerodynamic.
Out of the 31 cities considered part of the Kansas City metropolitan area, fireworks are legal in only 14 of them, 10 of which are on the Missouri side and four in Kansas. One of the communities counted on the Kansas side, Shawnee, only allows snakes and caps to be sold or used.
In the remaining 17 metropolitan cities, the use and sale of fireworks is banned outright. This includes some of the more populous communities such as Kansas City proper, Grandview, Raytown and Independence on the Missouri side and Overland Park, Olathe, Leawood and Prairie Village in Kansas. (www.kmbc.com/holidays/9432613/detail.html)
Many cities justify their ban on fireworks by using statistics. They back up the laws they have passed with numbers showing how many people are injured and how much property damage is done because of fireworks.
It is laudable to attempt to keep someone from getting hurt or a home from burning down. It is laughable to attempt this by banning fireworks, as people who want to shoot fireworks will either do so despite the law or will simply go to a nearby community to celebrate the holiday where fireworks are legal.
INJURIES — According to the 2007 Fireworks Annual Report prepared by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, fireworks were involved in an estimated 9,800 injuries treated in emergency rooms, with 6,300 of those occurring between June 22 and July 22. Children under 15 accounted for 42 percent of the injuries, with sparklers being the most likely type of firework to cause harm. Of those taken to emergency rooms for fireworks injuries, 95 percent were simply treated and released. The number one reason listed as the cause of injury was misuse of fireworks. (www.cpsc.gov/LIBRARY/2007fwreport.pdf)
“A lot of the injuries you see are from illegal things such as M-80s,” Fire Chief Fowlston said. “Also, drinking and fireworks don’t mix the same as drinking and driving or drinking and shooting guns don’t mix.
“If you’re going to shoot off fireworks, you should just do it correctly. This won’t prevent injury in every case, but it will most of the time,” he said.
As the use of fireworks has dramatically increased over the years, the percentage of injuries has actually plunged, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. (http://www.americanpyro.com/press/facts/FireworksRelatedInjuryRates.pdf) In 1977, Americans consumed more than 32 million pounds of fireworks with 8,300 reported injuries, a rate of 38.3 injuries per 100,000 pounds. In 2007, the pounds of fireworks used had skyrocketed to more than 265 million with 9,800 reported injuries. While this was a higher number of injuries, it was only 3.7 injuries per 100,000 pounds of fireworks, a decrease of 34.6 injuries per 100,000 pounds.
FIRES CAUSING PROPERTY DAMAGE — Based on a 2001 report compiled by the United States Fire Administration (www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/tfrs/v1i7-508.pdf), “fireworks fires cause approximately $15 million in property loss, injure 50, and kill 15 annually.” The report states that 57 percent of fireworks fires occur in July, with nearly 20 percent on July 4 itself. The vast majority of the fires are in “open fields or vacant lots,” according to the report.
To some, these numbers might seem mind-boggling. It is easy to see why cities would rush to ban something that clearly is so dangerous. After all, the citizens must be protected from everyone, including themselves.
The numbers seem less weighty when one considers other circumstances that cause injury or property damage. The leading cause of injury to children is playground accidents, with 150,000 five- to 14-year-olds winding up in emergency rooms each year. (http://www.productliabilitylawblog.com/2009/06/playground_accidents_are_leadi.html) In another report written by the United States Fire Administration, lightning causes 17,400 fires each year, resulting in a whopping total of $138 million in property damage. (http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/tfrs/v2i6.pdf)
These numbers lend a little less credence to the “fireworks problem.” Anyone can make anything sound big, bad and dangerous with statistics, just like I can make myself look gigantic in a photograph with the Eiffel Tower in the background. It is all about perspective.
I believe Fire Chief Fowlston has hit on the right path. He offers everyone the chance to learn how to be safe while still enjoying the right to shoot off their own fireworks, instead of just punishing those who are trying to show off their patriotism. The fireworks safety training course is a great example of a proactive approach that should be emulated by other communities throughout the area and the country, thus lessening the need for an outright ban on all consumer fireworks.
Communities who ban the private sale and use of fireworks will often point to their public displays as a fun and safe alternative. I enjoy these gigantic displays as much as anyone. Even if it was legal, I could never afford to purchase such awe-inspiring pyrotechnics as these. I love community fireworks displays. But, I also love shooting off $60 worth or so of my own fireworks.
The large, public displays are like professional football games. They are very fun events to watch and at which to cheer. Every once in awhile, however, I like to play the game myself. Is there a chance I will get hurt? Yes, that chance most certainly exists, in football, fireworks and nearly any activity one can name. If I just follow some safety tips and use my head, most likely everything will work out fine.
Edited by Bre Bivens — Thanks again for all of your help! You are incredible!