Safety groups fear Statehouse proposal easing restrictions on consumer-grade fireworks would lead to more injuries, fires in Ohio

Each year, on average, fireworks cause 18,500 fires and send nearly 12,000 people to hospital emergency rooms. Nearly half of the injured are bystanders; nearly a third are children under 15. The data is from the National Fire Protection Association and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

On occasion, one of the fires becomes a national disaster, such as the September burning of 33,382 acres of forest in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area of Oregon and Washington. More than 900 firefighters battled the fire, which started when a 15-year-old boy set off fireworks on a forest trail.

Compared to the nation, Ohio's fireworks disaster rate is low. In 2015, the State Fire Marshal blamed fireworks for 67 fires. On average, fireworks cause 120 visits to Ohio emergency rooms, says the Ohio Fireworks Safety Coalition, which includes the state's leading medical, health and insurance organizations. It argues the state's current safety advantage is worth keeping.

The coalition is hoping to defeat, or at least moderate, a Statehouse proposal to legalize the use of consumer-grade fireworks. The legislation, House Bill 226, breezed through the Ohio House on Oct. 11 on a 83-14 vote. It awaits hearings in the Ohio Senate.

Forty-four states allow the discharge of consumer-grade fireworks such as bottle rockets and Roman candles. However, 23 of those states restrict discharge to days surrounding the Fourth of July and New Year's. And some states allow only the use of ground-based fireworks.

Ohio law allows only the purchase and use of so-called novelty fireworks, such as sparklers and devices that pop or crackle.

House Bill 226 would allow residents to shoot off consumer-grade fireworks “24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, as long as it is on their own property or property they have received permission to use,” said Sherill K. Williams, president of Prevent Blindness Ohio and a coalition leader. However, the bill would permit local governments to restrict the dates and times people could use fireworks.

The bill's sponsors, Reps. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, and Martin J. Sweeney, D-Cleveland, say it's time to eliminate Ohio's so-called “liar's law.” For nearly four decades, Ohioans have been allowed to purchase consumer-grade fireworks but not legally set them off within the state. Until 2015, customers were required to sign a form promising to take them out of state within 48 hours. The form is gone, but the 48-hour requirement remains on the books.

“Let us have illuminations from one end of the continent to the other to celebrate our freedoms,” Seitz said in a floor speech, quoting Founding Father John Adams. Seitz said improved manufacturing standards have made fireworks much safer.

The American Pyrotechnics Association, a fireworks trade group, reported that in 1976 – the nation's bicentennial – Americans bought 29 million pounds of fireworks, and incurred 11,100 injuries. Four decades later, they purchased 268 million pounds, and experienced the same number of injuries.

“There's no safe way to use consumer fireworks,” countered Lt. David S. Belcher, president of the Ohio Fire Officials Association.