New state laws take fireworks industry by surprise

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By JUDITH O. ETZEL
Contributing writer

A small insertion into a complex state law, one that drew attention last month because it expanded casino licenses in Pennsylvania, will have a dramatic and noisy impact on communities across the state.

An act amending the Pennsylvania Tax Reform Act was passed by the state House and Senate and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in late October.

It changes the way state residents can buy and use all consumer fireworks year-round.

What it does is open up the use of consumer fireworks, a move that would override municipal ordinances and allow residents to shoot off a variety of fireworks at any time and generally at any location.

“It completely changes everything about selling fireworks, using fireworks and regulating fireworks,” said Bob Kellner, owner of Kellner’s Fireworks Inc. near Harrisville.

Established by his father in 1947, the company is the largest distributor of consumer fireworks and display fireworks and proximate pyrotechnics in Pennsylvania.

His industry, said Kellner, was completely caught off guard by the ramifications of the new fireworks laws. The industry, he said, “had no input in this.”

“We’re not sure how fireworks got thrown into this but now we’re researching it and talking to regulators and municipalities as to how it changes everything,” said the company owner. “The talk is that a state senator wanted to have a party, couldn’t get local permission to set off fireworks and pushed changing the laws.”

There are two types of fireworks – the professional type that includes huge aerial displays typically put on by municipalities and the consumer type that includes smaller fireworks such as bottle rockets and multi-shot aerials used for small events such as family reunions and private parties.

The new state measure doesn’t affect the professional category because it is regulated by federal law.

Measure ‘opens it all up’

It does, however, have an impact on consumer fireworks and their use throughout Pennsylvania.

“In my lifetime, consumer-type fireworks were regulated by local municipalities,” said Kellner. “The general public couldn’t buy them or set them off unless permitted by the city or township or borough. So a person who wanted to have a party on his own property, something like a family reunion, he could get permission from, say, Cranberry Township, fill out a form, do the insurance thing and then be able to shoot them off,” Kellner added.

The new law, though, “over-rides all the local ordinances,” said Kellner.

“All local ordinances dealing with small scale fireworks are out,” he said. “It opens it all up.”

What can be done?

In opening up the use of consumer fireworks, the likelihood is there will be a wider use of the pyrotechnics, said Kellner.

“We love fireworks but we don’t want our neighbors disturbing the peace all night. We’re all for shooting fireworks for celebrations and the like but do we want to see people shooting them off all night? No,” he said.

As local ordinances dealing with fireworks are shelved as a result of the new state edict, municipalities may have to consider adopting a noise ordinance, suggested the business owner. Those types of local enforcement would be permitted while a municipal measure directly tied to fireworks use is no longer allowed because of the state’s priority in setting the law.

There may be an expansion of available fireworks, too, under the Pennsylvania rule.

“There are 82 licensed distributors of consumer-type fireworks in Pennsylvania,” said Kellner. “We all had rules and regulations and training. This opens it up to tent-selling and we are a bit nervous about that. There will be many more people doing this. And, a tent owner can get a full license so that aerial items never before sold in a tent will be available. So a lot more of these types of fireworks will be sold.”

Seminars are scheduled

Kellner said he has had conversations about the fireworks changes with local code enforcement officers and fire chiefs and they are “unaware” of the repercussions locally.

“We want to explain how the changes will affect communities and so Kellner’s Fireworks is hosting a series of free seminars to anyone who is interested,” he said.

There are nine sessions scheduled and they are planned in several western Pennsylvania counties. The nearest one in this area is set for 1 to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 21, at the Days Inn in Oil City. There is no charge for the seminars.

“This is a big, big change for communities. Like I said, I love fireworks but you can’t have people shooting them all night and basically disturbing the peace,” said Kellner.