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Spectators watch the fireworks at dusk at the 2018 Summer Pops in Wilcox Park in Westerly. Sun file photo

WESTERLY — During the final weekend of June, local police received 10 complaints regarding the use of illegal fireworks at locations that spanned all corners of the town.

If last weekend's trend is any indication, Police Chief Shawn Lacey said he anticipates his department could see a record number of complaints this year, especially as more people stay home and fewer public displays are available due to COVID-19 restrictions.

"It'll be a busy weekend, that we are expecting. We could see upwards of 100 calls over the course of the holiday," Lacey said. "Our primary goal will remain safety, and we are asking residents to follow the laws and to show respect for their neighbors."

Across the nation from Connecticut to California, the fireworks industry has seen a 200% increase in the sale and use of fireworks in 2020. That comes as many cities and organizations that would normally host large-scale displays have canceled their events.

The reasoning remains unclear, according to Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, and theories range from coordinated efforts to blame those protesting police brutality to bored people blowing off steam following coronavirus lockdowns.

Most states allow at least some types of consumer fireworks, but for Rhode Island, the only legal fireworks are ground-based devices and sparklers, the Office of the Rhode Island Fire Marshal said. The ground or handheld devices produce a shower of colored sparks, or smoke, or may feature a colored flame, a crackling sound or whistle.

"These devices do not rise into the air, do not fire inserts or projectiles into the air, and do not explode or produce a report," according to a fact sheet provided by the fire marshal.

Aerial displays are allowed in Rhode Island but are highly regulated, requiring permits from the local or state fire marshal, and proof that the launch location is safe. Such displays can be done only in the presence of a licensed fireworks technician. Displays also regularly require insurance, officials said.

Similiar laws exist in Connecticut, where aerial displays are also limited to professional, permitted events.

Police from Stonington to Richmond have said they intend to enforce state laws and promote safety, but asked that residents work to police themselves and prevent the need for a large number of complaints.

Lacey said when it comes to at-home displays, area residents should make sure to do so in a clear area without any flammable objects such as a propane tank and to do so at appropriate times of the day. Children should never be left unattended with any fireworks, not even sparklers.

When possible, he said residents should also notify neighbors.

"There are a lot of veterans and people with pets who can be negatively impacted by bright lights and loud bangs," Lacey said. "One way to avoid a complaint is to alert your neighbors when you can and agree upon a time so that they may shelter pets and avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety."

The American Red Cross also urges that residents using fireworks take the following precautions:

  • Never give fireworks to small children, and never throw or point a firework toward people, animals, vehicles, structures or flammable materials. Always follow the instructions on the packaging.
  • Keep a supply of water close by as a precaution.
  • Make sure the person lighting fireworks always wears eye protection.
  • Light only one firework at a time and never attempt to relight a “dud.”
  • Store fireworks in a cool, dry place away from children and pets.

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