HARTFORD – July 4th and other backyard celebrations could get considerably louder – and some say more dangerous – under a proposed legislative bill to allow more powerful fireworks to be sold in Connecticut.
The only fireworks that are now legal without a permit are relatively tame hand-held sparklers and ground-based fountains that produce a display of sparks.
Under the proposed bill, the sale and use of “consumer-grade” explosive devices including firecrackers, Roman candles, smoke bombs and other “aerial” varieties would be allowed – although sales would be limited to stand-alone fireworks stores.
The bill was discussed Tuesday at a public hearing of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee that drew testimony from fire officials who say it will produce more injury and death and retailers who say the state’s current prohibition on the devices just leads residents to cross state borders to get them – typically in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
Massachusetts does not allow the sale of any form of fireworks, and New York and Rhode Island’s laws mirror Connecticut’s.
“We all know that fireworks from other states are flowing into Connecticut on particular occasions,” said committee co-chair State Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury. “Are we safer because we have stricter laws or are we essentially just porous and these fireworks are coming here anyway and it’s not really helping us?”
Depends who you ask.
Industry representatives cited statistics from the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which tests and regulates fireworks, that they said showed associated injuries and deaths are declining even as states across the country loosen their regulations on them.
Dan Peart, director of government affairs for national retailer Phantom Fireworks, said while consumer fireworks use has tripled in the past 25 years to about 300 million pounds of the devices being sold every year, injuries have decreased by nearly 70 percent.
“The unparalleled success of the fireworks industry safety record has been achieved through an industry-led effort to mandate a high-quality product and a vigorous education campaign to ensure that consumers are aware of how to responsibly use consumer fireworks,” Peart said, adding that “now seems to be the perfect time,” for Connecticut to legalize them.
Committee member State Rep. Pat Boyd, D-Brooklyn, questioned the accuracy of Peart’s numbers.
“Is there some kind of quantifiable data that you can put to that?” Boyd asked. “That’s kind of contrary to the conversations we’ve been having.”
Peart said he would supply the committee with the Consumer Product Safety Commission report from which he drew the information.
A representative of the Connecticut Fire Marshal’s Association, however, quoted a different set of statistics while opposing the bill.
Roger Nelson, Fire Marshal at Bloomfield Center Fire District, said fireworks-related injuries have been on the rise nationally since 2008, as well as an increase in the number of related calls for fire, police, and EMS services.
Those types of calls tripled in Connecticut in 2020, Nelson said, and there were eight injuries, $300,000 worth of property damage, and the death of an 18-month old child in a structure fire caused by fireworks.
Most of those injured across the country, he said, were under the age of 15.
Also testifying in favor of the bill was Eric Turner, government affairs director for an Alabama company that sells the devices under the brand name TNT Fireworks, which he described as the largest retailer in the country that has been operating for more than a century.
Along with supplying several thousand temporary tents from which fireworks are sold around July 4th, Turner said the company also provides inventory for retail chains such as Wal-Mart, Walgreens and Dollar General, which in Connecticut may sell sparklers and fountains.
He said the bill’s provision to only allow sales of bigger consumer-grade fireworks at stand-alone fireworks stores would hurt those small tent operations, as well as large retailers’ bottom line, not only from direct sales of them but from customers not buying other items while they’re shopping.
“We’re okay with expansion if that is the will of the legislature, as long as it can be sold in all retail venues where fireworks are currently being sold,” Turner said.
State Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford, who co-sponsored the bill, said those stores would still be able to sell sparklers and fountains.
“You want this legislature to feel sorry for Wal-Mart because they can’t sell fireworks?” Vail asked Turner. “I don’t think the economic impact on those businesses is going to be that huge.”
Michael Dapkus, co-owner of Dapkus Fireworks in Durham and Stateline Fireworks in Winchester, New Hampshire, said his Connecticut facility is the only one licensed in the state to manufacture and sell the products out of state.
More than a third of the customers at his New Hampshire store are from Connecticut, he said.
“They don’t want to buy sparklers and fountains,” he said. “They want to buy aerial devices which this bill will cover.”
A retired Portland police officer and longtime paramedic, Dapkus said that “the only injuries I’ve seen from fireworks were people that were either intoxicated or misused them or they couldn’t get them so they decided to make them in their basement.”
He said he is very strict about who he sells to at his New Hampshire store, and believes the proposed law here would reflect that approach.
Dapkus relayed a story about throwing a father and his two teenage sons out of his New Hampshire store and notifying authorities after the three pointed Roman candles at each other at close range to prepare for what they told him were planned “Roman candle wars.”
“The bottom line is you have to have morals to sell fireworks – you really do,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
A similar bill raised in the legislature in 2018 was opposed by fire and police groups, and died after the Judiciary Committee decided not to bring it to a vote.
Vail, the co-sponsor of the current bill, expressed doubt at the end of the hearing that it will see a different fate.
“I don’t know if it will ever pass or not,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of opposition to it.”