Working in conjunction with Vancouver’s Police and Fire Departments, City officials are considering modifications to local fireworks ordinances that could change the way residents celebrate Independence Day for years to come. Current policy permits the use of approved firework devices within city limits from July 1st to July 4th and the sale of such devices from June 28th to July 4th. On the enforcement side, the Police Department’s present focus is upon citizen education, limiting legal citations to cases involving “egregious violations.”

Vancouver City Council discusses fireworks.

In addition to granting citizens the freedom to engage in traditional Fourth of July festivities as they see fit, existing regulations also provide crucial financial support to local non-profit organizations that are licensed to own and operate firework stands. Unfortunately, the continuing sale and use of fireworks within city limits also presents a host of economic and safety concerns

In 2011, the Vancouver Fire Department reported 17 firework-related fires in the period of time between June 28th and July 5th. Property damage from these fires is estimated at $36,450. The number of fires and the total amount of fire damage occurring on and around July 4th skyrocketed drastically in 2011, and the goal of the current policy reevaluation is to reverse that trend. In addition to costs incurred from injury and loss of personal property, the surge in firework-related emergency calls places added stress on police and fire departments that are already stretched to their utmost limit.

Heidi Scarpelli address fireworks issues.

In an effort to increase public safety and alleviate budgetary constraints in 2012 and beyond, the Vancouver Police and Fire Departments are cooperating with City staff members to examine various ways in which local fireworks ordinances can be restructured and/or overhauled. At the March 5th City Council meeting, Vancouver Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli presented five potential approaches to fireworks reform ranging from maintaining the status quo to a instituting a complete and immediate ban.

Following a period of considerable debate, the majority of City Councilmembers have expressed an interest in pursuing a “Multi-Year Transition to Ban” strategy. Although specific polices and time frames have yet to be determined, the Council generally supports the notion of incrementally “scaling back” fireworks sales and/or use with an eye toward an outright ban in the foreseeable future.

It is hoped that such a plan would begin to unburden local fire and law enforcement personnel while allowing the community a chance to adjust to the new fireworks polices over a protracted period of time. It would also give non-profits like Clark County Search and Rescue the opportunity to explore other fundraising options before discontinuing their firework stand permits altogether. If Vancouver ultimately decides to prohibit the sale and use of fireworks within city limits, they will be joining the ranks of other densely populated Washington urban centers (such as Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma) that have already chosen to do so.

Residents ready for fireworks discussion.

In the end, however, City Councilmembers agree that further study is necessary before reaching any kind of definitive decision. The Council is unanimous in their belief that most Vancouver citizens are perfectly capable of using fireworks safely and legally but worry that a few bad apples (or, as Councilmember Jeanne Stewart referred to them, “pinheads”) will always have the potential to ruin the fun for everyone. While acknowledging this fact, Mayor Timothy Leavitt cautioned against “legislating to the lowest common denominator” and encouraged developing creative solutions such as limiting public use of fireworks to certain areas of the city.

At the present time, only one thing remains absolutely certain: Balancing the practical concerns of the City against the personal freedoms and traditions of its citizens will not be an easy or popular task. “No matter what we say, somebody is going to be mad,” said the Mayor in a half-jocular tone. “It’s a 50/50 proposition.”