Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2018  
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July 5, 2018

There are two types of people in Richmond: (1) those who set off fireworks on the 4th of July (and the months leading up to it), and (2) those who complain about it. It is possible that the former outnumber the latter.

Setting off fireworks in Richmond is illegal and is a misdemeanor, meaning you can be fined up to $1,000 or go to jail for six months. Here is the ordinance:

11.05.020 - Possession, use or sale of fireworks prohibited.

It is unlawful and a misdemeanor for any person or entity to possess, sell, give away, store, use, display, display for sale, explode, ignite or discharge any fireworks within the City limits except by valid permit as "exempt fireworks" or by a valid special event permit for a public event authorized by the City.

(a) Any special event permit or exempt fireworks permit is not transferable and shall only be valid for the date of the specific event.

(b) In addition to criminal action, any person or entity who possesses, sells, gives away, stores, uses, displays, displays for sale, explodes, ignites or discharges any fireworks in violation of this chapter is subject to Administrative Citations as set forth in Chapter 2.62.

(Ord. No. 21-11 N.S., § 1, 9-20-2011)

You will note that it was passed only recently –  September 20, 2011. That’s because seven years ago I discovered that the City didn’t actually have a fireworks ordinance and that fireworks were not, as many people believed, banned in the City. In the Agenda Report for the 2011 ordinance, I wrote:

Each year, the City of Richmond is faced with a number of complaints and public safety related issues regarding the use of fireworks. Many cities across the nation are addressing the challenges with regulating fireworks in their respective municipalities. Because the City of Richmond does not have a fireworks ordinance, the city is limited to relevant Health and Safety Codes or narrow violations under the state law. The relevant Health and Safety Codes only regulates “dangerous fireworks” which leaves a large number of fireworks unregulated by the state (many of which are designated as “safe and sane”). Unfortunately, “safe and sane” fireworks provide both a heat source that creates a fire hazard and can also cause bodily injury (sparks in eyes, burns, etc.). Increasingly, cities and counties are now stringently regulating or outright banning these “safe and sane” fireworks, both due to fire hazards and potential for injury. The Fire Department regulates permit violations of designated “dangerous fireworks” only (generally pyrotechnic), but most problems stem from fireworks being set off in the street and in back yards; complaints of such activities are responded to by the Police Department and not Fire personnel (unless there is a fire or injury). The proposed ordinance will prohibit the possession or discharge of fireworks.

Last night, the 4th of July was business as usual. From my home on the hill in Point Richmond, I can see and hear it all. I got the usual frantic complaints, and social media was burning up on the subject. Some recommended skipping the sanctioned fireworks shows sponsored by various municipalities, climb to a high point like Nichol Knob, and enjoy a bigger, better (and certainly longer) show from the streets and backyards of Richmond.

Richmond’s fireworks ordinance gets about the same respect as he 55 mile per hours speed limit on highways.

One complaint I received stated:

Mr. Mayor, I just sent off a very unhappy set of emails re: current explosives being set off in the North and East to the RPD? I can send you a audible if you wish Every year it gets worse. And I never hear ANY siren or see any presence of either RPD or the FIRE department ANYWHERE IN MY AREA! I swear, if my house goes down in flames, I will sue the City if Richmond for everything plus. This is NOT ACCEPTABLE!

I sent the complaints to the police chief, who responded:

I get the frustration many endure related to deviant ID4 celebrations in Richmond.  They have escalated over the years - and it’s a trend that we’d like to slow down and hopefully reverse.

We took a comprehensive approach this year, starting with public education and outreach.  We teamed with others and brought in extra officers strategically placed in neighborhoods where our records show have experienced the highest levels of fireworks activity and celebratory gunfire over the last 5 years. 

We still have to study the results of our efforts, but based on preliminary feedback, our efforts yielded promising results.  I have learn from public feedback of individual neighborhoods how they feel things where compared to last year.

Police seized caches of illegal fireworks all over town, arrested an arsonist, broke up a sideshow involving 100 cars, and averted a riot of about 200 people near 5th Street (where a large cache of fireworks was confiscated).  

We’ll continue to step it up every year in the hope of reversing an unwanted trend.  

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Chief Brown

The fact is that the 4th of July (and before) fireworks are more than a law enforcement problem. An army could not have stopped the display I saw last night. It will take a cultural change in every neighborhood of Richmond to change this tradition.