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N.H. Fire Marshal Considers Banning Reloadable Mortar Fireworks

Concord — William Degnan has seen 38 July Fourth celebrations come and go since he began his career in fire services. He took over as state fire marshal 10 years ago, and recently he has become more convinced that certain types of fireworks should no longer be legal.

“There needs to be some sanity brought back to this issue,” he said.

Degnan is specifically concerned about reloadable mortar fireworks, which caused a severe hand injury to a Pelham man last weekend. This type of firework was banned by statute in New Hampshire until 2011, when a movement in the Legislature significantly reduced regulation on fireworks. Before then, a committee of fireworks industry representatives, public safety officials and members of the state House and Senate would examine each type of firework that stores wanted to sell and vote to approve or disapprove them, he said.

Since their legalization, Degnan said reloadable mortars have caused two injuries in 2011, 13 in 2012, one in 2013 and two in 2014.

“Each and every time I see the pain and anguish that a family goes through when they have an injured family member; that’s the driving force for why I feel compelled to make people aware that there’s a way to reduce the risk,” he said. “There are still other fireworks they can have that will put on a great show but at a lesser risk of injury.”

Reloadable mortar fireworks can be especially dangerous because the user needs to assemble the pieces before firing them, Degnan said.

“First of all, the tubes need to be set up on a solid, firm surface so they’re supported,” he said. “Then you have to load them correctly. If you put the explosive in upside down, you could blow up the tube and have shrapnel from it, or you could have a tube tip over and fire the explosive directly at the spectators.”

Lack of Training

The incident in Pelham was reportedly caused by an explosive inserted upside down in the tube.

The general public should not use reloadable mortar fireworks because most people lack the training that licensed pyrotechnicians have, Degnan said.

“Those who do the display shows are licensed and trained. They know how to do this,” he said. “Would you drive a car without a license? There might be danger driving any vehicle, but you have to have a license first. It’s basic safety.”

He said he would support a statewide ban on reloadable mortar fireworks, but there is currently no legislation being pursued.

“Reloadable mortars are consistently in the top three types of fireworks for injuries in the United States,” he said. “Now, unfortunately, we’ve got several families that have had significant injuries to family members, and that impacts health care, loss of work, cost of emergency response. ... It does have an impact on the state.”

Concord Fire Chief Dan Andrus said the city had very few July Fourth emergency calls between 2011 and 2013 and no serious firework-related injuries recently. He credited both responsible firework users and the city officials who organize the official Independence Day celebration for the good track record.

“The city of Concord really offers an alternative to backyard fireworks that you just can’t begin to replicate,” he said. “And not only a fireworks display, but a whole day of activities that attract a bunch of people. That helps reduce the number of amateur fireworks set off here.”

The city has “been very lucky” to avoid serious accidents in recent years, but Andrus said he would stand behind Degnan if the fire marshal wanted to ban reloadable mortars.

“The fire marshal has had two incidents in two years now that involve the same device,” Andrus said. “We’d like to have discussions about it, but it’s really too early to say what will come of it.”

Cities Have Authority

In New Hampshire, local city and town governments have the authority to ban or regulate firework use with local ordinances. Before his department would bring forward specific proposals to the city council, Andrus said they would need to make a strong case for why the reloadable mortars are more dangerous than other kinds and why the council needs to take action. At this time, they’re not prepared to make a statement about it, but Andrus said he looks forward to discussing it with Degnan and learning more about the issue.

Degnan said safety is the top priority, and there are other measures that could be taken at the local level to keep users safe if a statewide ban isn’t feasible. Local committees could organize a process for users to apply for permits to be sure they have the proper training before using reloadable mortars, he said, but that would be logistically impossible to coordinate at the state level.

Ban All Fireworks?

He said ideally, he would like to see a ban on all consumer fireworks, which would include everything except the official displays executed by professionals, even though he recognizes that a total ban would be unrealistic.

No matter what the law is, fireworks need to be taken very seriously as a matter of public safety, Andrus said.

“These are not toys. These are explosives,” he said. “My advice is just to keep kids away from this stuff. I’m appalled when I hear stories about children getting injured across the country every year. You wouldn’t give your child gunpowder or a hand grenade, so why would you give them a firework?”