Chiefs: Tougher fireworks ordinance proved effective
WHEELING — Although few citations were issued for violations to the city’s strengthened fireworks ordinance, the heads of Wheeling’s police and fire departments deemed the effort very effective in the wake of the July 4 holiday season.
Earlier this month, Wheeling Councilman Dave Palmer had requested that a report be compiled for the next regular council meeting regarding the police and fire response to fireworks calls in the city. The request came after council added teeth to its fireworks ordinance last month.
Use of most commercial fireworks were already prohibited within city limits. However, the code did not deter many people from following the law, particularly around the Independence Day holiday. The situation became more complicated when West Virginia changed its code in 2016 to allow the use of fireworks in the state, while the sale of fireworks within the city limits is still permitted despite the fact that the use of them is not.
In the past, the city code against the typical seasonal fireworks put enforcement responsibility to the fire department. Under the recently updated ordinance, the code gives more enforcement powers to the police department. It also raised the fine for violations from $100 to $500.
“I ran the data for a four-day period, which is our peak period for fireworks violations, July 3-7,” Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwerfteger told members of city council this week. “This year, there was a 46% reduction in fireworks calls and a 53% reduction in officers’ time spent on those types of calls.”
Schwertfeger had noted that during the July 4 holiday season each year, the police department is typically inundated with calls and complaints about fireworks. Officials have noted that in the more urban setting of the city, fireworks can be a noise nuisance to neighbors and traumatic to pets. They added that aerial fireworks can be particularly dangerous in dense residential areas and are a fire hazard in many situations.
“I read an article in the local newspaper that was, I thought, a little silly,” Schwertfeger said. “It was critical of the police department’s response to the fireworks and the change to the ordinance. … A 46% reduction is extremely successful. The mere fact that this ordinance presented a higher fine was impactful. “
The police chief said the volume of calls about fireworks was down over the past two years. He noted that the new ordinance was a preventative measure, like putting an empty cruiser in the median of the interstate as a means to slow down traffic.
Schwertfeger said this year, the police and fire departments joined forces and worked together to respond to fireworks complaints over the holiday weekend.
“(W)e had 37 calls over that four-day period,” he said, “which was significantly down from the year prior.”
Last year, the city received several complaints about fireworks during the July 4 holiday, and Officials attributed the increased use of personal fireworks last year to the fact that the COVID pandemic led to the cancellation of public fireworks displays. The return of professional fireworks shows and the education about the city’s fireworks ordinance helped drive this year’s numbers down, according to the police chief.
“There were not many citations, and one of the reasons is this – police officers still have discretion,” Schwertfeger said. “If you can use an opportunity to provide education as opposed to an enforcement action that would bring a hefty fine such as what we enacted, then it doesn’t become an issue.”
Schwertfeger said education about the city’s firework code needs to and will continue with enhanced strategies prior to next year’s July 4 holiday.
“In all seriousness, the officers that were involved believed that those who were in violation — that we were able to find — truly did not have the knowledge that this was in violation of the city ordinance,” he said. “They were confused by the fact that it’s legal in the state, and they were confused about the fact that there are booths set up in the city of Wheeling to sell fireworks.”
Wheeling Fire Chief Jim Blazier said citizens who were approached by the police and fire teams about fireworks use were cooperative and very receptive to information about the code.
“We’re going to use this year as an opportunity to educate — not just right before the fireworks season but all year,” Blazier said. “I think if people are more aware, your good neighbors are going to abide by that.”
Officials said next year’s education campaign will likely include having details about the city code and fines erected at local fireworks sales booths.
“I’m not about fines, so if we only issued one citation, then that’s great,” Palmer said. “I love what you guys say about education, and I think we need to keep that rolling all year long and keep that information flowing to the citizens. We’re not looking for the fines, we’re looking for the education.”
Officials added that there were no reports of injuries or fires as a result of illegal fireworks.
“Overall, I’m very pleased with the outcome,” Schwertfeger said. “I think it was very successful.”