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Fireworks: Lots of complaints, few citations

One issue has generated by far the most complaints from City Council member Michael O'Donnell's south Wichita constituents this year.

Flooding? No.

Street repairs? No.

Fireworks.

"And I have big issues in my district," said O'Donnell, who represents District 4.

But O'Donnell said he understands why so many people are unhappy: this past Independence Day holiday period seemed even louder than usual.

The number of fireworks complaints this year jumped to more than 1,100, an increase of nearly 50 percent over 2010, according to statistics provided by Wichita Fire Marshal Brad Crisp.

So many people jammed 911 with fireworks complaints on the night of July 4 that callers attempting to report an ultimately fatal motorcycle crash shortly before 10 p.m. were unable to get through.

Yet only four citations were issued for violating the city's fireworks ordinance, which forbids any fireworks in the city that shoot more than 6 feet into the air.

Despite the ordinance, illegal fireworks ignite structures and grasslands each year in Wichita. Fireworks have caused five structure fires so far in 2011, Crisp said.

The reason more citations weren't issued during the July Fourth holiday period is simple, Crisp said.

"You have to have probable cause," Crisp said. "You have to see them actually doing it, or they have to have it in their hands."

Patrolling a city of about 380,000 people and spotting specific violators at night is pretty difficult, he said.

"It's very challenging," Crisp said. "Literally, you've got to catch them in the act."

O'Donnell said he would like to see authorities crack down on violators next year — or eliminate the tougher city restrictions altogether.

"Why even have these laws if we're not going to enforce them?" he asked.

Dan Fitzgerald was so frustrated by being kept up until the wee hours of the morning by loud fireworks that he began walking through his Historic Midtown neighborhood to see who was setting them off.

"I am not opposed to fireworks, but there has to be some restrictions," said Fitzgerald, who lives in the 1300 block of North Topeka. "The stuff I hear is all illegal ... and some of it is really, really loud.

"I just think it's way overboard."

It's not just in one or two areas of town, he said. Shortly after the holiday period, he met with friends who live in far west and far east Wichita. They all complained about the fireworks noise.

Fitzgerald said he'd like to see public service announcements air in the days leading up to July reminding folks what's legal — and what's not — to set off in Wichita.

A similar campaign a decade or so ago about not celebrating each new year with gunfire was effective, he said.

Numerous verbal warnings were issued to violators this year, Crisp said, but statistics on those cases weren't kept.

Typically, he said, those instances were misunderstandings — not blatant disregard of the ordinance. One family followed the recommendation of "shoot them where you buy them" by walking to the fireworks stand two blocks away and purchasing their fireworks there.

As it turned out, Crisp said, they live in Wichita and the fireworks stand was in Goddard. They unwittingly bought and set off fireworks that are not allowed in Wichita.

"That's a completely different conversation" than someone who simply ignores the ordinance and sets off whatever he wants, Crisp said.

O'Donnell said an increase in fireworks citations might have a chilling effect on violations in much the same way as a crackdown on speeding seems to get drivers to slow down in the targeted area.

"Honestly, I would just want more consistency," he said.

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