LEWISTON — Police in Rumford and Lewiston say they have seen a steady increase in complaints about fireworks — and they expect those complaints to increase as the Fourth of July gets closer.
Many people are using the fireworks legally, but some of the complaints are legitimate and some police are worried that too many consumers may be misinformed about the recent law changes.
Maine lawmakers voted to lift the more than 70-year ban on most types of fireworks in 2011. However, many of the more high-powered explosives and the ones that fly through the air, such as bottle rockets and sky rockets, remain illegal. Also, many towns have passed local ordinances banning fireworks.
So, police are trying to educate the public on the new laws while trying to keep the peace in neighborhoods, police in Rumford, Lewiston and Auburn said.
"What we are experiencing in our context here in Rumford is really a lack of understanding about what the law is and what it is not," Capt. Dan Garbarini of the Rumford Police Department said.
He said many folks are under the impression that any fireworks they may have saved up over the years are now legal to use, but that's not the case.
He urged people to check the law and the list of legal devices. If there's any doubt about a particular device, the best advice is to not use it. Garbarini said people could also check with local fireworks dealers about whether a particular firework is legal in Maine.
Garbarini and his counterparts in other towns and cities said they typically field complaints about the use of fireworks around the Fourth of July holiday — in years past an illegal activity — but this year those complaints came sooner and in greater volume.
"The guide we are going by right now is, if you can buy it here in Maine, then you can likely use it here in Maine," Garbarini said.
The state law also requires fireworks to be lit on private property. Rumford has been dealing with complaints of people lighting off fireworks on public streets and in other public areas, which is still illegal, the captain said.
He said people are misinformed about when and where fireworks can be set off legally, and several complaints in Rumford have resulted in citations that may result in fines.
"They need to use these fireworks in a responsible way that's safe for them and safe for others," Garbarini said. "My hope in this is that there are a lot of good people that choose to make the right decision, and most of them are in it to have fun."
In Lewiston, police have been getting several complaints every day, Lt. Mike McGonagle, public information officer for the Lewiston Police Department, said.
That's not that surprising, he said, given that a whole host of fireworks, not legal last year, are now legal for use and readily available for purchase at local fireworks stores.
In a memo to Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett, the police department's administrative sergeant, David Chick, wrote that officers have responded to at least "a couple dozen" fireworks-related incidents in the past week alone.
"The officers are responding to the scene of these reports, quite often with a heightened priority because it is not certain as to whether the cause is in fact fireworks," Chick wrote.
There's little doubt those complaints will increase the closer we get to the Fourth of July, McGonagle said.
Even those legally using fireworks may be in violation of other city noise ordinances aimed at preserving the peace, he said.
"These things are loud and they are meant to be loud and even if you are perfectly legal, you could be creating a disturbance in the neighborhood that's going to warrant a response from the police," McGonagle said.
Loud fireworks could be mistaken for gunshots, he said.
"We are going to handle a gunfire call on an entirely different level," he said. "Gunshots fired are a high priority; we take that a lot more seriously than your typical noise complaint."
While the use of fireworks remains largely illegal in residential areas, the city's ordinance does allow them on certain dates and at certain times.
"So there's a big learning curve here for everybody," McGonagle said. "They may be legal, but they are very dangerous and on top of being dangerous, they are loud and they can be disturbing."
Barrett said the ordinance allows limited use of fireworks in the more rural parts of the city, but the City Council could revisit and revise the ordinance if it's not working.
In Auburn, where fireworks are banned by city ordinance, police were urging citizens to stick to enjoying the shows put on by fireworks professionals at the Twin Cities' annual Liberty Festival.
“It’s a matter of safety," Auburn's Deputy Chief Jason Moen said in a prepared statement. "It may be legal to purchase fireworks in certain parts of Maine now, but Auburn banned their use, sale and possession with intent to sell.”
Auburn's ordinance carries a $500 fine.
“We will cite violators if they are found,” Moen said.
Health officials prepared
Officials at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and Maine Medical Center in Portland said they had not seen any fireworks-related injuries in their emergency department so far this year.
"But it's still a little early yet," Dr. Christine Irish, associate medical director for the Emergency Department at Maine Medical Center, said.
She said those most commonly injured in fireworks mishaps are young adults and children and the most common injuries are burns to fingers, hands, arms, eyes and face.
Although ER personnel hadn't yet seen any injuries, they were prepared to treat them, she said.
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