Fire Officials Concerned by New Rhode Island Fireworks Law

June 23, 2010

State and local fire officials expressed concern Monday about a new law that legalizes a limited number of consumer fireworks in Rhode Island, saying they didn’t have enough time to review the measure before it passed and that it could cause confusion ahead of the Fourth of July holiday.

The law was passed this month in the waning days of the legislative session and was signed last week by Gov. Don Carcieri. It allows people to buy and use certain consumer fireworks, such as handheld and ground-based sparklers, without a permit. Supporters say it merely permits devices that are readily accessible in nearly every other state.

Though officials said they would use existing laws, like arson, to prosecute people who use fireworks irresponsibly, they also said they feared the new statute could lead untrained consumers to damage property or hurt themselves or others.

“With the allowance of some of these new types of pyrotechnics, we’re even more concerned about that,” said Providence Fire Chief George Farrell, the head of the state fire chiefs’ association.

State officials plan to meet with local fire marshals later this week to give them guidance and training on enforcing the fire code, state Fire Marshal Jack Chartier said.

“Anything that happens in the last few days of the legislature goes through at an accelerated pace and, quite frankly, we’re playing catch up,” he said.

Chartier said the law does not permit the pyrotechnics blamed for igniting the February 2003 fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, which killed 100 people and injured more than 200 others.

The blaze began when pyrotechnics known as gerbs ignited cheap foam that was used as soundproofing on the club’s walls and ceilings. Daniel Biechele, the former tour manager for the 1980s rock band Great White, pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter for setting off the pyrotechnics without a permit. He served less than two years in prison.

“What was used in the Station fire is absolutely and unequivocally not what has been made legal by this law,” Chartier said. “There’s a very profound difference.”

He said those pyrotechnics were professional-grade devices that were fired electronically and would still need a permit and license to be set off. The fireworks legalized by the new law are consumer fireworks and are intended for outdoor use only, Chartier said.

Courts are already dealing with the confusion.

Matthew Parker of Nashville, Tenn., was charged Monday with arson and use or possession of Class C fireworks after allegedly setting off a Roman Candle-type device Sunday inside a Warwick hotel room. But the new law removes a reference to “Class C” fireworks, replacing it with more specific standards written by the American Pyrotechnics Association.

Christine O’Connell, a public defender who represented Parker during his court appearance, said lawyers discussed the change in court, and the charge will be revisited.

Parker did not enter a plea and was ordered held on $25,000 bail.

Warwick Police Capt. Sean Collins said that Parker got the fireworks from a co-worker and that the devices had apparently been purchased at a supermarket in North Providence. Police have not been able to confirm that, but are investigating.

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