July 4th has come and gone, and, as many Pennsylvania local elected officials and police chiefs are well aware, the word is out that “consumer fireworks” are now legal for purchase by in-state Pennsylvania residents. On October 30, 2017, Act 43 was enacted, repealing and replacing the Fireworks Act of 1939 in its entirety and making significant changes to state fireworks law. The most important change was the legalization of “consumer fireworks” for purchase and use by adult Pennsylvania residents without a permit. Examples of these fireworks include items commonly referred to as bottle rockets, Roman candles, and firecrackers. “Display fireworks,” which are larger (in terms of explosive power) still require a permit for use and may only be used in organized, permitted displays.
Act 43 does not allow the unfettered use of consumer fireworks. Consumer fireworks cannot be used on public or private property without the owner’s consent and may not be used by a person under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. Most importantly for many urban or suburban municipalities, Act 43 prohibits the use of consumer fireworks within 150 feet of an occupied structure. This rule has the practical effect of prohibiting the use of consumer fireworks in most residential districts, though firework enthusiasts may be unaware of this limitation. Violation of these rules is a summary offense punishable by a fine of $100 under the Act.
So how should a municipality plan for the next July 4th holiday, and for the safe use of fireworks year-round? First, remind residents that the use of large, “display fireworks” still requires a permit. The Fireworks Act authorizes municipalities to issue permits to a person, not under the age of 21, for a specific fireworks display using display fireworks, and to set reasonable rules and regulations for the use of display fireworks at the event. Second, municipalities should publicize the restrictions on use of consumer fireworks – particularly the required 150 feet clearance from an occupied structure – under the Act. Third, noise and nuisance ordinances apply to fireworks in the same manner that these ordinances limit other bothersome activities. It may be worth reviewing these ordinances to ensure that they specifically highlight fireworks, even “legal” fireworks, as an example of activities covered by the ordinance.
Municipalities also may restrict the use of consumer fireworks on public property, including parks, parking lots, and streets. Additionally, given that Act 43 sets forth updated rules for the sale of fireworks, municipalities should revisit whether their zoning code addresses firework sales and determine whether changes are necessary to avoid future issues governing where fireworks are sold or stored in the municipality.
Undoubtedly, violations of Act 43 and municipal noise ordinances involving fireworks will continue to occur. But the legalization of consumer fireworks does not mean that municipalities are powerless to address resident concerns; resident education and enforcement of existing ordinances may go a long way to ensuring safety and enjoyment of future holiday firework displays.