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Examining fireworks laws in Maryland and Pennsylvania

Ky Mahaffey carries tubes into position while setting up for Mount Airy's fireworks display Friday, July 3, 2015. Launching rockets is only legal for permitted displays in Maryland.
Ky Mahaffey carries tubes into position while setting up for Mount Airy's fireworks display Friday, July 3, 2015. Launching rockets is only legal for permitted displays in Maryland. (DAVE MUNCH/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

As the Fourth of July approaches, many families are planning their holiday cookouts, getaways and other celebrations. For this particular holiday, one of the most popular pastimes is creating amateur fireworks shows. But with laws differing from state to state and even county to county, it can be difficult to determine what exactly is going to leave you with a beautiful show and what is going to leave you with a hefty fine.

Throughout the state of Maryland the usage of a large percentage of fireworks devices are banned, leaving families with a restricted repertoire of firey devices.

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Bruce Bouch, spokesman for the Maryland State Fire Marshal, said illegal fireworks include devices that fly into the air; pieces that create a loud explosion or Chinese-style lanterns with no control of direction or path.

Allowable items include gold-labeled sparklers, ground-based sparkler devices and novelty items like party poppers, snap pops and snakes.

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Allowable fireworks often include some showering or sparking technology, in pieces that do not launch or explode. Banned fireworks include firecrackers, cherry bombs, M-80s, crackling balls, smoke bombs, any firework that is shot from a mortar tube, spinning wheels, roman candles and bottle rockets.

According to information from the office of the State Fire Marshal, in the past, fireworks wrappers could be reliably used to determine whether fireworks were legal in Maryland, with "caution" wrappers signifying legal products and "warning" labels marking illegal fireworks. But this easy-to-remember rule of thumb is no longer effective. Officials recommend buyers examine the warning labels for tell-tale descriptions of illegal capabilities, including "rockets," "shoots" and "flaming balls."

Bouch said an easy way to stay within the law is by only using fireworks bought in the county you plan to use them. Any fireworks bought in Carroll County are legal to fire in Carroll.

While Carroll follows most of the state in banning a portion of fireworks devices, Baltimore City, Ocean City, and Montgomery, Prince George's, Harford and Howard counties have banned the use of fireworks entirely for those without permits.

Christopher Shelton and his daughter, Cali, work in the fireworks stand located in the parking lot of TownMall of Westminster, part of a network of stands that sell TNT brand fireworks nationwide. He said a majority of people who come to buy fireworks have no idea what is and isn't legal in the state.

"They ask for everything from mortars, roman candles, firecrackers to M-80s; they don't even sell those anywhere anymore," Shelton said. "We sell safe and sane fireworks of all sizes, from the big ones to the little ones. Nothing leaves the ground, though."

Many of the illegal fireworks shot off in Carroll come from across the Pennsylvania border. Though fireworks are illegal to shoot off in Pennsylvania, it is legal to sell them to out-of-state residents, even to those who live in a state where the rockets are banned. A Maryland resident can travel to Pennsylvania and purchase fireworks as long as they provide proof of Maryland residency and sign a form promising to shoot them off outside of Pennsylvania.

Bouch said Maryland has been trying to shut down this loophole for years, but there's little that can be done about another state's laws.

"It is legal to transport and have them," Bouch said. "The problem comes when you go to ignite or sell them."

Unpermitted Maryland residents caught setting off fireworks or caught possessing fireworks with the intent to discharge are subject to a $250 fine for each device, a penalty that can add up quickly.

"I highly suggest people attend public displays," Bouch said. "The expenditures are already handled. They're much larger and much more grand than what you can do, and it keeps the safety aspect in mind."

In Carroll, 11 groups have obtained permits for fireworks shows throughout the summer, including Antrim in Taneytown, Springfield Hospital Center, River Valley Rance, McDaniel College, the Carroll County Farm Museum and five Carroll volunteer fire companies who host fireworks displays as part of their annual carnivals.

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In numbers of fireworks displays, Carroll is situated just about in the middle of all of Maryland's counties, with 13 counties with more fireworks programs than Carroll and 10 that feature fewer. Somerset County hosts only a single fireworks show, at the Somers Cove Marina in September.

Only 11 companies nationwide are licensed for Maryland fireworks displays, including Maryland companies Advanced Entertainment Technologies, Digital Lightning, and Fireworks Extravaganza, with other companies coming from adjacent states.

Shelton said July is their busiest month, with most procrastinators waiting until July 4 before heading out to buy their fireworks. He said people don't often know what they want; they just come at the last minute to see what they can get.

If families are purchasing legal fireworks for home use, Bouch urged that they remain aware, safe and responsible. He said families should be careful with whom they let near sparklers, and make sure to clean up debris and properly dispose of used fireworks.

"We had a family who had a nice legal fireworks display at their house, but they did not douse them after they were done and put it all in a plastic trash can," Bouch said. "It went up the vinyl siding and a couple of hours later up the house and into the attic and burned the entire house down. They were responsible about everything except the water aspect. You have to be careful at all times."

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Twitter.com/Jacob_deNobel

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