North Carolina Might Ease Fireworks Safety Law for July 4th

June 18, 2010

A state law passed after the July 4 blast on Ocracoke Island that killed four fireworks handlers mandated safety training for those who prepare the displays, but some warn the rule could limit fireworks shows this Independence Day.

North Carolina legislators are considering a one-time exception to the heightened safety training requirements for workers to allow for fireworks shows that may risk cancellation. The new law is causing some towns to struggle to find operators who have completed training to meet the new licensing requirements.

“There are some small communities that may not be able to get a display” befitting the holiday tradition, said Jeff Hale, who owns a Lexington fireworks display company. “I’m trying really hard not to cancel any of my shows.”

He said his Hale Artificier Inc. has booked 39 fireworks shows over the Independence Day weekend from Morehead City on the coast to Sparta in the mountains, but is struggling to find enough licensed operators to run them all. Hale dropped bids for contracts for three shows because he lacked the manpower. Three hundred licenses have been issued statewide.

The problem is that part-time pyrotechnics operators either didn’t know about the new licensing requirement or didn’t follow through with the process within a four-month window during the spring, Hale said.

“Human nature is, ‘Ah, well, I’ll do that tomorrow,”‘ he said.

But pyrotechnics professionals aren’t the only ones effected.

In Mars Hill, a town of about 1,800 in Madison County, Fire Chief Eddie Fox said he and his deputy got their licenses just last week. The town’s 15-minute show is back on for July 3.

“We’d pretty much told everyone that if we’re not able to get this license, we’re not going to have fireworks,” said Fox, who still supports the law.

Down the road in Hot Springs, a vacation town of about 600, Fire Chief Joshua Norton said neither he nor any other firefighter was able to attend the required safety classes offered since February.

That forced the department to hire professionals for $5,000 instead of the $500 the department spent to do it themselves last summer. The money will come from businesses that depend on tourists drawn to see the explosions over the lawn of the Hot Springs Resort & Spa.

“The rate is very expensive for a very small town,” spa manager Heather Hicks said Wednesday. “But we were able to literally pass the hat (among businesses) and make it happen. This was an event that was important to the community.”

The General Assembly is considering legislation that this year only would allow the state insurance commissioner, who is also the state fire marshal, to issue a 30-day operator’s license to adults who have worked on six fireworks displays in the past 10 years. Failing to follow through with safety training and a test puts the license out of reach until September 2011.

The House Finance Committee was scheduled to take up the measure this week.

“We wouldn’t anticipate we would have to process hundreds and hundreds of these” temporary licenses, said Kristin Milam, spokeswoman for Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin. “But if there are a handful of folks who have somehow missed the notification, that’s who these temporary permits would be beneficial to.”

Safety regulations for handling pyrotechnics is regulated on a state-by-state basis and varies widely, said Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group in Bethesda, Md. Twenty states have no licensing requirement, she said. About 87 percent of the 213 million pounds of fireworks Americans fired off in 2008 were backyard firecrackers and rockets, the group said.

An investigation of the Ocracoke Island blast led to nine state citations of serious workplace safety violations and fines of $44,800 against Melrose South Pyrotechnics Inc. of Catawba, S.C. The company contested the citations and fines and a review is pending. A spokesman did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment.

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