첥Ƶ

Skip to content

Crime and Public Safety |
How Lehigh Valley cities are cracking down on illegal firework use over July 4 holiday

Fireworks debris sits in the parking lot at Jordan Park in Allentown on Tuesday after Fourth of July celebrations in 2021. (Rick Kintzel/Morning 첥Ƶ)
Rick Kintzel/Morning 첥Ƶ
Fireworks debris sits in the parking lot at Jordan Park in Allentown on Tuesday after Fourth of July celebrations in 2021. (Rick Kintzel/Morning 첥Ƶ)
UPDATED:

For the first time this year, Bethlehem police will have a “no tolerance” policy for illegal firework use — if someone is illegally setting off a firework in the city, police will immediately issue a citation with no warnings given.

The change in policy comes as a result of what police Chief Michelle Kott calls a necessary response to the often disruptive, sometimes dangerous use of fireworks in the city during the holiday.

“We are able to make a handful, I would estimate approximately five arrests [every July 4 holiday],” Kott said in an interview. “But that’s in comparison to almost 100 calls for service, where people either believe they are fireworks or gunshots.”

Allentown, too, has struggled to respond to firework use in the city. Last year, a video on Twitter that appeared to show at least 15 fireworks detonated in 32 seconds in a west Allentown neighborhood prompted Mayor Matt Tuerk to respond publicly, promising “consequences” for illegal firework use. Allentown also has a “zero tolerance” policy in place for illegal firework use.

Even though consumer grade fireworks became legal in Pennsylvania in 2017, several limitations exist under the law — for example, fireworks cannot be set off within 150 feet of an occupied building, meaning they are illegal to use in most urban areas.

A 2022 update to the law added limits, allowing cities to restrict the hours in which people can legally set off fireworks.

“Limiting the period of time you can shoot off fireworks is a really key reform,” said state Rep. Josh Siegel, D-Lehigh, whose district includes most of Allentown. “In theory, you could shoot fireworks 24/7 and never break the law [before 2022].”

In Bethlehem, consumer fireworks are illegal between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. In Allentown, restricted hours are 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Still, enforcing the laws are a challenge for police. For police to cite someone for illegal firework use — which comes with a fine of up to $500 for a first offense and up to $1,000 for a repeat offense —  they have to witness the illegal firework being ignited.

If police arrive after the firework has been ignited, they can’t issue a citation or make an arrest.

“We are handcuffed,” Kott said. “It’s so incredibly frustrating, that possession is completely legal, so I can walk down the street with a bottle rocket, roman candle and I can just basically have it in my possession and not be breaking any laws. Officers have to physically see someone lighting off, igniting these fireworks in an illegal matter.”

Kott said she would be in favor of, once again, making most consumer fireworks illegal in Pennsylvania. Allentown police Chief Charles Roca, on the other hand, said he thought the state law is “appropriate at this time” because it allows police to confiscate fireworks if they are used illegally.

Some legislators have tried to ban consumer grade fireworks statewide, but the bills have not caught on, according to Siegel. He said there is little appetite to banish fireworks for good — not only are they are a popular pastime, but an important financial boost to public safety agencies.

Fireworks in Pennsylvania are subject to a 12% tax, in addition to the state’s 6% sales tax, that is funneled into public safety programs such as fire department grants and EMS workforce development programs.

“Even if there’s obviously a certain risk that comes with fireworks and an inherent public safety issue, it is a critical source of funding for first responders,” Siegel said.

He said he would be in favor of bolstering funding to police to help them respond to firework use, including investments in drones and surveillance technology.

Kott said Bethlehem police will be “all hands on deck” July 4 to respond to illegal firework use. Not only can it be disruptive to neighbors, but it can be dangerous. Deputy fire Chief Craig Baer said Bethlehem averages around nine fires each summer holiday that are caused by improper firework use.

“I hate the fact that we have to take that stance, but if we don’t, someone is going to get hurt or killed,” Kott said of the zero tolerance policy. “We can’t just afford to sit back and let someone get hurt or killed celebrating inappropriately.”

Roca also encouraged residents to “be mindful of our veterans, elderly, pets and others who find the sound of fireworks disturbing or can trigger trauma.”

Reporter Lindsay Weber can be reached at Liweber@mcall.com.

Originally Published:

More in Crime and Public Safety