Tougher rules on fireworks being eased Traditional 4th of July shows saved for many communities

March 02, 1992|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

Trying to toughen fireworks regulations, state fire officials have drafted rules so rigorous that many communities feared they would have to cancel this year's Fourth of July shows.

But in recent days the draft rules received such an negative reaction that they're being redrawn to exempt some traditional shows -- while making it much harder for new shows in built-up areas to be authorized.

So demanding were the initial proposals, for example, that annual shows at Memorial Stadium and in such communities as Catonsville and Glen Burnie most likely would have been put out of business.

Stringent new state codes regulating fireworks displays were recommended by fire officials after national safety standards were beefed up in 1990, said Robert B. Thomas, spokesman for the state fire marshal's office.

Mr. Thomas said that in its revised regulations the fire marshal's office will recommend exempting long-standing shows -- leaving to local officials the decision of whether to issue permits for the traditional shows.

As word spread about the proposed regulations last week, the fire marshal's office received more than a dozen angry calls from citizens and state legislators, Mr. Thomas said, prompting meetings to consider other options.

"We're naturally very happy about this," said Tom Connor, a licensed fireworks "shooter" in Catonsville who had vowed to fight the new regulations. "I thought it was overkill all along. We've been doing this for decades and we've never had an accident.

"People look forward to fireworks. It's a patriotic thing. Why would they try to squelch something that's patriotic?"

If adopted, the new regulations -- which would restrict how close to spectators and buildings fireworks can be set off -- would still apply to any new sites for which permits were requested. But dozens of sites throughout the state that have held displays for years would most likely be issued permits under a "grandfather clause," Mr. Thomas said.

The new regulations -- expected to take effect in April -- would need to be approved by the state's Fire Prevention Commission before becoming law. The commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes at 10 a.m. March 26 in the Laurel Municipal Building.

Aerial fireworks displays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards would not be allowed under the updated code, because the stadium would be considered a new site (city fire officials said the new stadium wouldn't have qualified under current standards, either). It's unclear whether shows would be allowed at Memorial Stadium, which would not have qualified under the new regulations.

Fireworks at Baltimore's Inner Harbor would not have been affected either way, said Capt. Robert L. Steele, the city's acting chief of fire prevention. Fireworks there are shot from a barge that can be moved back far enough to comply with the new regulations, he said. Baltimore city is the only jurisdiction in Maryland that does not come under the state fire marshal's office, Mr. Steele said. But the city has traditionally followed the state code on fireworks safety.

The fire marshal's office first recommended new standards to the state Fire Prevention Commission last spring, after the National Fire Prevention Association -- a private, non-profit safety organization in Quincy, Ma. -- changed its standards.

Martha H. Curtis, an NFPA specialist, said a 30-member committee of display operators, fire prevention specialists and other industry experts worked three years to develop the new standards.

The new regulations would double, triple and in some cases quadruple the required distance between the shooting-off point and spectator viewing areas. Distances to certain types of buildings, such as prisons and health facilities, would also be increased.

Exact distances required are based on the size of fireworks shells, which range in diameter from three to 12 inches. A minimum distance of 840 feet would be required for the largest shells, compared with the state's current requirement of 200 feet.

Mr. Thomas said the stricter regulations are long overdue.

"We've felt for years the distance requirements should be increased," he said. "We've had mishaps and misfires. These are high explosives, and if they detonate near a crowd, they can be deadly."

Mark Walch, a licensed fireworks shooter who works on Columbia's show, agreed. "I'm glad there's a change in the regulations," he said. "There's no point in taking a chance someone could get hurt."

Mr. Thomas said that state Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele decided Thursday to include the "grandfather clause" in the new regulations. He said the only hang-up now may be insurance companies, which generally will not write policies for operators if sites do not meet the most current national standards.

Although accidents at licensed public displays are fairly uncommon, each year a few injuries are reported, usually eye injuries or minor burns, he said.

Fire prevention experts say the majority of fireworks injuries are attributed to private, often illegal, use of fireworks. In Maryland, 17 injuries were reported last July 4. How many of those resulted from licensed fireworks displays could not be determined.

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