Politics & Government

It’s back to the drawing board after new Wichita rules fizzle in illegal firework enforcement

Last year was the inaugural run of the new fireworks enforcement protocol in Wichita, but the promise of a $250 fine didn’t stop residents from celebrating the Fourth of July illegally. In fact, the number of firework related complaints were up last year, reports indicate.

The city ended up writing about 140 tickets. But, Fire Chief Tammy Snow previously said, the citations hardly made a dent in punishing illegal fireworks use. In all, Stuart Bevis, the Wichita fire marshal, said Sedgwick County received about 1,400 complaints about illegal firework use.

Numbers, however, might be misleading, Bevis said, since an extra day was added to the reporting period.

The new enforcement protocol wasn’t necessarily successful, Bevis said, but the city is going to try a modified version of the plan this year.

This time around, the Wichita Police Department and Wichita Fire Department will use data from last year to better enforce areas called “hot spots” or the areas where most of the complaints have historically originated.

Additionally, to cut down on aggression toward enforcement officials, each of the seven groups on patrol will have two police officers and one firefighter. This plan, Bevis said, is to protect officers after a fire official was assaulted last year trying to enforce the ordinance. An elderly lady hit an officer over the head with a roman candle.

“Some people acted really inappropriately and dangerously toward the officers,” Bevis said.

In some instances, officers and firefighters who were concerned for their safety left scenes without writing tickets.

In addition to an increase in complaints and worries about officer safety, Wichita saw an increase in reported injuries.

Bevis said the city recorded more than 50 fireworks related injuries. Of those injuries, 15 were treated in the Ascension Via Christi Regional Burn Center Sarah Fischer, burn program coordinator, said. A lot of those injuries treated at the burn center were serious, Fischer said, but none of them were life-threatening.

One of the most common causes of injuries related to fireworks is the use of sparklers, which are legal in Wichita, Bevis said.

“Not only do you have something that remains hot, but that it ignites right next to your hand,” Fischer said. “Where we see big injuries with those is when we see people lighting multiple at a time.”

Sometimes, Fischer said, they see “extensive damage to extremities” or even chemical burns because of sparklers.

A lot of the time, Fischer said, it’s children who are most likely to get injured in a firework related accident.

In 2017, a 15-month girl was injured when a firework was inadvertently launched into her stroller by neighbors setting off fireworks across the street from her home. She was seriously injured and so were her parents and a sibling who were badly burned trying to get her out of the stroller she was strapped into. A lawsuit against the neighbors responsible for the injuries is ongoing.

Last year, from June 27 to July 5, the cost of property damage due to fireworks was down. The city recorded about $47,000 in loss in 2018 compared to more than $200,000 in 2017. However, Bevis said, last year’s figures excluded a house fire that occurred on July 6 that was related to the use of illegal fireworks.

Most firework-associated fires don’t occur because of the initial blast, but from the improper handling of smoldering debris, Bevis said. People bag up firework remnants that are still burning down and sometimes, the contents of the bag get hot enough to ignite.

The ordinance outlawing most fireworks in Wichita hadn’t changed much in 30 years until last year when a recommendation from city council gave enforcement protocols new teeth, adding a $250 fine and using unmarked cars to patrol areas.

The city of Wichita has more strict regulations than the state of Kansas, but conversations to loosen what fireworks are outlawed didn’t get very far.

In general, if the firework shoots more than 6 feet in either direction, it’s not legal in the city of Wichita.

Every year, city officials test fireworks from different wholesalers that plan to sell fireworks within city limits.

“If they don’t fit the requirements of the city, they can’t sell them,” Bevis said.

Anything you buy inside city limits should be legal, but anything purchased in other parts of the county or across the county line in Andover could be illegal here.

“Shoot them where you buy them,” Bevis said.

While “enhanced enforcement really focuses on the days around the Fourth,” Bevis said, use of illegal fireworks in Wichita can always lead to a citation.

Firework sales in Wichita begin on June 27. Legal fireworks can be discharged through July 5 every day from 10 a.m. until midnight.

Once again, the city has set up a nonemergency fireworks complaint line. It will be active 6 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. everyday from July 1 until July 7. The number is 316-290-1011.

“Be respectful of the rules, keep Wichita safe,” Bevis said.

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