Every year before the Fourth of July fire safety advocates and organizations, including the one I work for, the National Fire Protection Association, try to sound the alarm about the dangers of consumer fireworks. We believe that fireworks are inherently dangerous and the thousands of injuries that occur every year during the Independence Day period can be avoided if people would limit their enjoyment of fireworks to public displays put on by professionals.
We have failed miserably in these efforts. Since 9/11 the number of states that ban the use of consumer fireworks has gone down and states that allow the sale of consumer fireworks have increased the types of devices permitted. Today there are only four states, including Massachusetts, that prohibit the use of fireworks by individuals. Patriotic feelings run high in this country and that is a good thing, but love of country should not be used as an excuse for otherwise reasonable people to engage in stupid or reckless behavior.
Fireworks proponents argue that fireworks really aren’t that dangerous at all. Their current trope is to distract attention by pointing out that more people are hurt each year because vending machines fall on them. We all walk by vending machines all the time but almost all of the fireworks use in the country takes place on a few days during the year and those days are very dangerous to the public. Thousands of people ended up in the Emergency Room last week because they did not realize how dangerous the product they bought legally actually was.
There were many incidents during this year’s celebrations that one could point to as illustrative of the problem. There was a 26-year-old man in Lowell, Indiana who died when the fireworks he placed in a tube ignited prematurely and hit him in the face. There were two boys, ages 14 and 11, in Missouri who had parts of their hands blown off as one boy held a device while the other one lit it. And there was a Michigan woman who was critically injured, suffering second and third degree burns after a fireworks device exploded in her face.
One of the most poignant cases in memory happened this year in Pelham, New Hampshire. A family celebration turned into a nightmare when a child holding a sparkler set off boxes of fireworks in the house. Neighbors said it sounded like a bomb had gone off. The resulting fire injured 13 people ranging in age from eight months to 58 years, including a two-year-old boy whose burns were so severe that he now lies in Shriner’s Hospital in an induced coma and on life support. Nobody in that family would have ever put that little boy and the other injured children in harm’s way if they had been aware of the danger but most people assume that products legally sold to consumers could not be so inherently dangerous that they can cause instant mayhem under ordinary use. What reasonable government would allow that?
There are some in the Massachusetts Legislature who are pushing for us to get with the trend and legalize consumer fireworks. They make the familiar arguments about the “nanny state” and are even throwing in the revenue potential from a new sales tax source as a reason to become the forty seventh state to permit their sale and we are hearing more people argue that we might as well throw in the towel on this battle since it is so easy to bring fireworks into Massachusetts from neighboring states.
Our state Fire Marshal and leaders in the fire service have been strong in their opposition to making fireworks legal in Massachusetts and the Legislature has not buckled under to those interests that for economic or ideological reasons want to remove our longstanding ban on fireworks sales. We will try again next year, right before the Fourth of July, to warn people how dangerous fireworks can be but for now it seems the most persuasive arguments will come not from us before the Fourth of July but from places like Shriner’s Hospital on July 5th.
James M. Shannon is the president of the National Fire Protection Association.