Fire marshal warns of dangerous, illegal fireworks

SHREWSBURY, Pa. — A bold warning adorns the outside of the Phantom Fireworks showroom just over the Maryland line: "Pennsylvania residents not permitted entry."

But Marylanders are most certainly welcome here. The parking lot is typically full of cars bearing Maryland license plates and with shoppers filling up their trunks with fireworks that have names like the "New York Salute" and the "Lock and Load."

The explosives can be purchased in Pennsylvania but not used there, hence the ban on state residents. The fireworks aren't legal in Maryland either, but that doesn't seem to stop too many people.

"I think it's worth the risk because I enjoy it," Ray Selenski said while shopping at Phantom on Wednesday. He lives in Baltimore, where most fireworks are banned.

Selenski estimated that he would spend "a couple hundred dollars" in the store's five aisles, which boast products that can cost up to $700. When safety issues were raised, he glanced at his two sons with a grin and said, "I supervise everything."

During a news conference Thursday to discuss safety issues for the Fourth of July holiday, State Fire Marshal William E. Barnard reported that misuse of fireworks in Maryland last year caused $1.5 million in property damage and, across the country, about 9,000 injuries.

"Nearly one-third of injuries will result in permanent vision loss," said Dr. Dean Fiergang of the Maryland Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons.

Sparklers can heat up to 1,200 degrees. "No responsible parent would hand a child a burning match," Fiergang said of the novelty items.

After the news conference at Oregon Ridge Park, fire officials demonstrated the effects of improperly handled fireworks. In one of the six explosions, a firework was detonated in a rubberized prosthetic hand, resulting in the loss of the index finger.

"Anything that shoots in the air, shoots on the ground or has a loud [noise] is illegal in the state of Maryland," said Deputy State Fire Marshal Bruce Bouch. "Only gold label sparklers and ground-based sparkling devices are allowed."

Each county or jurisdiction can add further restrictions. Ground-based sparkling devices are illegal in Harford County, Howard County and All fireworks are illegal in Baltimore City, and in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

But fireworks stores and stands just across state lines advertise on billboards and on TV, leaving it up to customers to decide whether to risk penalties. "It is legal [for Marylanders] to make the purchase," Bouch said. "You can have the fireworks adorn a shelf. You just can't utilize them."

People caught using illegal fireworks in Maryland can receive hefty fines. Each offense, for each firework, can bring a $250 fine. Possession with intent to detonate illegal fireworks, such as bottle rockets, can result in a fine of up to $250,000 and 25 years in jail.

"I'd say 90 percent of our business is Marylanders," Brian Hunt, the assistant manager of Phantom Fireworks in Pennsylvania. "That's why our showroom is so close to the border."

Hunt said his employees encourage customers to be responsible. "We have you sign a form that says you understand and recognize your own state laws and that you are responsible for your own actions," he said.

Bel Air resident Jack Ross, who was browsing in the Phantom showroom, believes the purchasing laws leave a lot of gray area. "I think it's weird that you can buy them in Pennsylvania, but not in Maryland," he said. "It's a big loophole."

Bouch said citations and fines are not meant to limit holiday enjoyment. "We're not in the business of writing citations," he said. "We're in the business of promoting safety."

Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said that if officers "see illegal fireworks being lit, they are going to take action. People just need to keep in perspective that fireworks are illegal because they are dangerous."

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