First Staters now can celebrate the Fourth with previously forbidden fireworks

Delawareans wanting to commemorate the nation’s independence now can celebrate with sparklers and similar fiery pyrotechnics under legislation approved in May.

Gov. John Carney signed House Bill 53 May 10, ending an almost 16-month-long effort to modify what had been a complete ban on fireworks.

Delaware was one of only five states that completely prohibited fireworks, though they were easily obtained elsewhere, said sponsor Rep. Joe Miro, R-Pike Creek.

“What was happening is that people were going to Pennsylvania and Maryland and other states in the area, buying fireworks and then using them illegally in Delaware,” Miro said.

He said the new law only allows “ground-based and hand-held sparklers and other non-explosive and non-airborne novelty items.”

In other words, sparklers and such now are fine, but items that fire into the air or explode, are still illegal. That includes firecrackers, rockets, torpedoes, Roman candles, fire balloons and similar explosives.

Sparklers may only be bought and used by someone over the age of 18 and only within 30 days of the 4th of July holiday and New Year’s Eve.

They only may be used on July 4 and Dec. 31. More legislation is expected to loosen the latter restriction to include New Year’s Day, Jan. 1.

Fireworks, such as the Light of Liberty Fountain, which looks like a star-spangled torch, are on sale in local stores including Redner’s, Acme and Food Lion.

“This also is a little bit of economic development for some merchants,” Miro said. “They’ll be able to generate some income by being able to sell them.”

Some history

While the Delaware State Fire Marshal’s office has yet to update its website to reflect the new law, Kent County Chief Deputy Fire Marshal B. Scott Bullock said his people are aware of the changes.

“These items are what we call ground-based pyrotechnics,” Bullock said. “That means no aerial shells, nothing that can be launched into the air. They remain on the ground.”

The bill was introduced in January 2017 but sat in the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee until January 2018, when it was amended to ensure the sparklers met federal Consumer Product Safety Commission standards.

Except for one representative who was absent, the full House gave unanimous approval Jan. 25.

The package was further amended in April and May during Senate debate. One amendment set up requirements for transporting and selling the sparklers, while another added a three-year sunset provision to the bill.

The Senate approved the amended bill May 2 and the House did so the following day. Carney signed it a week later.

Fire officials had opposed the legislation from the beginning, with State Fire Marshal Grover P. Ingle at Legislative Hall urging it be defeated.

Bullock said Ingle argued there was a potential increase for fires and injuries with these devices.

“We in the fire marshal’s office all agree that any time we can do something to prevent injuries or fires because of fireworks, we will do so,” he said.

Safety first

Sparklers are made of wire or sticks layered with an oxidizer. When lit, they throw out burning bits of powdered metal. The colors in each sparkler come from the different metals mixed into the oxidizer.

Naturally, this means they’re hot. Sparklers burn with temperatures between 1,200 and 2,000 degrees, as hot as a blowtorch, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. A mishandled sparkler can cause third-degree burns and fabrics, paper and dry grass can catch fire.

Bullock’s office has received any number of inquiries about the new law, and the fire marshals always offer the same advice when it comes to fireworks: use your common sense.

“They’re hot,” Bullock said. “You shouldn’t grab them after you’ve lit them. I wouldn’t use them around any flammable vapor and certainly don’t use them indoors.”

Despite all the warnings, “We know someone will use them inappropriately,” he said.

CPSC studies show an average of 250 people nationwide are treated for fireworks-related injuries in the month around the Independence Day holiday. About one-third of those are due to sparkler mishaps. The study noted most people suffer burns to the head or hands from using sparklers the wrong way.

Laws hard to enforce

Improperly used sparklers and fireworks also can land users in trouble with the law, Bullock said.

Although the charges could be relatively minor -- an unclassified misdemeanor or a violation -- an out of control firework can lead to more serious offenses, such as reckless burning or arson, he said.

Both Bullock and Dover Police Department spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman said fireworks laws are difficult to enforce. Law enforcement authorities often find nothing more than burned out remains of fireworks as the perpetrators have long since vanished, they said.

There have been two reports of illegal fireworks use within the city limits during the last month. Police were unable to make arrests.

Hoffman said many members of the public still aren’t aware they now can buy and own sparklers.

“We’ve had several people contact us and say they’ve seen stores selling fireworks, and said they thought it is against the law,” he said.

The public needs to realize that while the new law allows sparklers and similar devices, all other types are prohibited in Delaware, even if they can be easily found outside of the First State.

“It’s not uncommon, especially in the summer,” Hoffman said. “People tend to pick them up on the way home even though they’re still illegal in Delaware.”

Lots of Delaware license plates

Miro thinks the time was right to update Delaware’s fireworks law.

“The fact is everyone could go and buy them,” Miro said. “You can go outside of Delaware, and you’ll see tents in the corners of gas station parking lots selling fireworks. You’d also see a lot of license plates from Delaware there.”

He considers that larger fireworks eventually could be legalized.

“I think that’s a conversation we can have in the future,” Miro said, adding the three-year sunset provision in HB 53 will provide that opportunity.

“If people are interested in buying [larger fireworks], then the rest of Delaware will support that,” he said.