Expect some sparks to fly when a bill for an islandwide ban on fireworks gets heard by the City Council’s Public Safety and Services Committee Thursday.
Council members are split on the issue and even the Honolulu Fire Department, which has consistently supported a total ban, will recommend that a working group be formed among stakeholders to hash out all fireworks-related issues before a bill is passed.
HFD spokesman Capt. Terry Seelig said the department continues to support a total ban, but wants a working discussion group to ensure "an ordinance that works for everybody."
Debate over a total ban has raged for years but gained traction last week when Gov. Linda Lingle signed a bill that allows each of the counties to establish stricter fireworks laws.
Proponents of a total ban say the setting off of fireworks is a safety and health issue because it harms those with respiratory problems and poses a danger not just to those who use them but also to their neighbors.
Opponents say it would impose on those who set off fireworks as part of their culture and religion. Some have also argued that fireworks-related incidents would decrease if there were simply better enforcement of existing fireworks laws.
The Hawaii Food Industry Association, which represents fireworks retailers and suppliers, and the Consumer Fireworks Safety Association, both oppose a full ban.
Lauren Zirbel, who represents the groups, submitted testimony to the council arguing that a total ban would not solve current problems and only make the situation worse.
"Why should thousands of perfectly law-abiding citizens … be penalized, or worse, forced to buy culturally necessary products through the black market?" Zirbel said. "A just society does not rob its citizens of their cultural and religious traditions simply because of the irresponsible or illegal acts of a few."
The council bill also does nothing to address the issue of illegal aerials coming into Honolulu’s ports, Zirbel said.
New Public Safety Committee Chairman Lee Donohue, the former Honolulu police chief, said a total ban would help officers immensely in their crackdown of fireworks that are already illegal, such as aerials, and violations in usage of what are now legally allowed.
Donohue said he’s heard the argument from opponents of a total ban who say fireworks-related incidents would decrease if there were simply better enforcement of existing laws.
But he doesn’t buy it, Donohue said.
"From an enforcement standpoint, the way the law is currently designed, it’s so hard to enforce," Donohue said. For a police officer, "It’s almost impossible to see somebody light something, and then go and arrest them."
Bill 35 (2010) would make it illegal for practically anyone to possess any fireworks except for those who obtain licenses for fireworks displays.
Police Chief Louis Kealoha, in keeping with the position of his predecessors, said last week that a total ban makes the job easier for officers by eliminating any ambiguity about what may be legal and not legal.
Councilman Gary Okino, who introduced the bill, said questioning enforcement is a red herring argument. "Looking at this from a health and safety standpoint, enforceable or not, the health risks are so great."
FIreworks are not just a hazard to those with respiratory issues, but have been the cause of fires, injuries and even fatalities, Okino said.
Okino said that while he supports a total ban, he’s willing to consider amending the bill to allow exemptions for legitimate cultural and religious events. But such exemptions would have to be limited, he said.
"If someone were to come in and ask for an exemption for New Year’s as a cultural event, they’re not going to get it."
Councilman Ikaika Anderson said he’s leaning toward voting against the bill.
"At this point, I don’t have sufficient evidence showing that a ban is warranted or would be effective," he said, pointing out that current laws against aerial fireworks have not stopped Oahu’s skies from turning into dazzling yet smoky display each New Year’s Eve. "But if there’s evidence showing a total ban would work and not just be another unenforceable mandate, then I would consider it."
HFD’s Seelig said the recommendation by Fire Chief Kenneth Silva to create a working group does not mean the department is backing off its longtime quest for a total ban.
"We want to put together the best possible ordinance that has a chance of passing, and the best way to do that is to have all the parties talk before," he said.
While it would be too late for a law to be passed in time to have an affect on this coming weekend’s Fourth of July holiday, both Seelig and Donohue said their goal is to get a fireworks bill in place before the new year.
"That’s our target, something that affects the end-of-the-year holiday period," Seelig said.
Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann earlier this year publicly supported the legislative bill allowing the counties to enact stricter fireworks laws. But since then, the mayor has not stated whether he supports a total ban.
Hunter Bishop, a spokesman for Hawaii County Mayor BIlly Kenoi, said county officials likely will look into the possibility of stricter regulations on some types of fireworks. But noting the many aspects of the fireworks debate, Bishop said, "There’s going to be a lot of discussion before that happens."
Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho last week said in a statement he has not finalized his position on fireworks, but noted that he also sees the different sides in the debate.
"At this point, I could see some additional restrictions on the use of fireworks that would address health and safety issues, but hopefully not ban them completely."