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Fire chief calls to tame fireworks ‘war zone’ in city

A proposal by Williamsport’s police chief to have consumer fireworks used for July 4th only in the summer is being eyed by members of City Council’s public safety committee.

City Police Chief Damon Hagan said to the committee Tuesday that limiting fireworks use to Independence Day in the city ordinance would help lessen the time residents have to endure the explosions.

City Fire Chief Mark Killian said the ordinance requires fireworks to be shot off 150 feet from an occupied structure.

Currently, the fireworks can be displayed seven days before the holiday and seven days after.

“Williamsport was reduced to a war zone,” Killian said of use of consumer fireworks.

Sadly, he noted, what Career Fire Chiefs Association and Pennsylvania Fire Chiefs thought when the state Legislature passed the fireworks sales law upping the power of the fireworks in 2017, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018, has transpired on city streets.

“We were proven right,” Killian said.

Although, Killian acknowledged, there were fewer “incidents” compared to larger cities, Killian stands in favor of seeing the law (Act 43) repealed or amended to “ban consumer fireworks displays within the city.”

The 150 foot requirement in the city ordinance meant that essentially any of the fireworks shot off during the summers since the law went into effect are “illegal,” Killian said.

Currently, too, legislation exists in the state Senate under a bill 932, which would prohibit private use of these fireworks to cities with populations of 58,000 or more.

Killian said he would like to see the bill be amended to include “all communities” regardless of the population.

Over the years, firefighters have dealt with many house fires, fires erupting in Dumpsters, and trash receptacles because of consumer grade fireworks, he said.

Hagan reminded council the police will enforce whatever law is on the books but it must be legally realistic and the wording can’t be vague.

The changes in the ordinance must enable the police to be empowered to have witnesses testify in courts of law at a summary level.

That is the trouble with the ordinance, he said.

Most people just “want it to stop,” but the complainant may not take it further, Hagan said.

“You’re asking neighbor to turn in neighbor,” said Councilwoman Bonnie Katz.

That is the only way to enforce the law other than if an officer comes upon the shooter(s) of the fireworks. Nevertheless, police have been “inundated with calls,” this summer.

“Windows have rattled,” according to Katz.

Katz said the coronavirus also may be partly to blame.

“The virus is making people nuts,” she said, adding another contributing factor is the city and Backyard Broadcasting had to relocate the professional fireworks display to Lycoming County Fairgrounds.

“This year was worse,” Councilman Adam Yoder said.

Council has until the end of the year to come up with a solution. It may include a combination of news articles and educational information for residents on the city website.

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