Every year, as June simmers toward July, in letters to the editor or Facebook posts, residents ask the same plaintive questions: How did the time-honored tradition of setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July grow into a tortured fortnight of neighborhood flashes, smoke and explosions? And why, in the name of everything that's decent, don't local authorities do something about it?
Sue Finkam, a member of the Carmel City Council, found the answer to that question the hard way.
As in Fort Wayne, council members in Carmel were familiar with the annual challenges Indiana's mandatory 11-day “Fourth of July” presents. In 2014, Finkam told a legislative committee this month, the Carmel council set out to modify its rules for when fireworks could be set off. Members reached a consensus on the dates and times they wanted to set before the council's lawyers informed them that they didn't have the power to change the rules.
“All we're asking for is the power to have a conversation with our community and represent them accordingly,” Finkam told the Local Government committee.
Localities are allowed to set rules for fireworks use except on New Year's Eve and June 29 to July 9. Past efforts to modify that prohibition have failed. But a proposal by Rep. Donna Schaibley, R-Carmel, received a hearing in a House committee earlier this month. Schaibley's House Bill 1053, which is set to be amended to exempt non-disruptive fireworks such as sparklers, would allow cities that chose to do so to cut each summer's mandatory aerial bombardment period from 11 days to as few as three.
That would be a huge change, minimizing disruption for those who are disturbed by fireworks – a group that may include the ill or elderly, pets and pet owners, and veterans – while preserving the tradition of holiday celebrations.
Gen. Jim Bauerle of the Military/Veterans Coalition of Indiana told the legislative committee between 43,000 and 56,000 Indiana veterans suffer from traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress syndrome. Unexpected explosions can trigger severe reactions in those men and women. But veterans are likely to understand the significance of the Fourth of July celebration and brace themselves for fireworks that night.
Restoring the right of localities to limit the any-firework-goes periods could also allow cities to reduce the stress this “season” puts on emergency-call systems overloaded by fireworks-related complaints, fire calls and mistaken reports of gunshots.
Of course, the three spokespersons for the fireworks business who testified didn't see it that way.
Steve Graves, executive director of the Indiana Fireworks Association, called on lawmakers to protect the fireworks industry from “abusive local governments” and added this assertion: “Cities and towns haven't burned down because of the use of fireworks.”
But fireworks do present danger. According to the National Fire Protection Agency, an estimated 19,500 fires started by fireworks were reported to fire departments during 2018. Last year, hospital emergency rooms treated an estimated 15,600 people for fireworks injuries, and at least 18 died.
Even if their power to set hours is restored, there is only so much local officials can do to regulate fireworks. Some will ignore the rules; others will become indignant if their neighbors ask them to tone down their celebrations.
But most rules don't resolve all the problems they target. Allowing local councils to tailor their rules on fireworks offers a way for those bothered by days of explosions to seek compromise and common ground with neighbors who love to blast things off.
Laws and ordinances can't replace common sense and courtesy – but they certainly shouldn't be at odds with those expectations.