City leaders announce major crackdown on illegal fireworks

By JONATHAN WHITAKER
June 7, 2018

Merced city leaders this week announced what they call an “aggressive Zero Tolerance” policy to combat illegal fireworks leading up to the annual Fourth of July celebrations in the region.

They say the critical effort — which includes fines of up to $2,000 and even the possibility of imprisonment — to cut down on fires, injuries, noise, lost pets and neighborhood disruptions.

“At this time of the year, people just have to listen to the noise, and look up at the night sky to see the problem that we have in our city,” said Mayor Mike Murphy. “We are asking people to be good neighbors, and if they are going to set off fireworks to use only the Safe & Sane ones.”

The zero tolerance policy is in effect for any fireworks not labelled “safe and sane” by the California State Fire Marshall. Basically, if it explodes or leaves the ground, it’s not safe and sane.

Extra police officers will be on patrol over the Fourth of July holidays to enforce fireworks violations. There also is a special phone number and email for people to report illegal fireworks.

Last year, City Councilman Kevin Blake was the first city leader to ask for the increased enforcement against illegal fireworks.

“Merced has looked like a battle zone with the sky lit up with skyrockets and the air filled with explosions,” Blake said. “I received a number of calls from constituents who had to medicate their pets because they were traumatized.”

Said Murphy: “They scare little kids, senior citizens, and our veterans … We need to show consideration for everyone.”

While not all fires can be attributed to illegal fireworks, last year on July 4, dispatchers received 75 percent more calls than the average day, according to Fire Department records.

At Monday night’s City Council meeting, leaders were supportive of the new enforcement and public outreach strategy — with the latter — including fliers, banners and online information — being funded by private community donations.

However, at least one resident at the meeting spoke up and asked leaders to consider a reality check.

“Twenty years ago, they didn’t want to sell marijuana publicly,” said Fernando Echeverria. “We have to look to the future, and the future is people will always buy fireworks. … You are not going to stop it. If you do, you are going to waste money by going after people like those who were smoking marijuana. … The answer is maybe in the near future — 10 or 20 years from now — you will have a special area and special booths, so they can buy their illegal fireworks and they can shoot them off as much as they want. Everybody can make money off of it, and that’s what we are going to look at … The future of fireworks is not going to be trying to stop them. It’s not going to happen. It’s like marijuana. It’s going to be here, and its going to be a part of us.”

At least one city leader, Councilman Anthony Martinez, agreed that the new zero tolerance policy will be difficult to enforce, and he offered another suggestion for the future.

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Martinez said. “People spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on these things every year, and I feel like they’re gonna light them. We can try and crack the whip, and I think that’s definitely a route we need to take — to come down harder than we have been — but I’m also wondering if going forward we may want to look at how we can provide an alternative for families … Instead of them spending hundreds of dollars maybe we can provide a free fireworks show … Maybe free to entry, but then we have various business selling whatever, and that’s how money can be made … I’m wondering if going forward, we may want to make our own celebration that we can make safe, and will be an alternative to people who would otherwise do illegal activities.”

Cops Mean Business

Meanwhile, three men and a woman have already been arrested for sale of illegal fireworks in recent days. Officers from the DART team arrested two Livingston men and a Winton man last weekend on charges of selling illegal fireworks, advertisement of illegal fireworks and conspiracy to sell illegal fireworks. Officers seized a large amount of fireworks and $666 in cash in an undercover operation. The three men were booked in the Merced County Jail. On Monday, the DART team rresponded to a Craigslist advertisement selling illegal fireworks. DART officers met with a Ceres woman in a hardware store parking lot in Merced County. She was arrested for selling illegal fireworks and advertisement of illegal fireworks, and booked at the Merced County Jail.

Fireworks Rules

· “Safe and sane” fireworks with the State Fire Marshal seal of approval can only be used from noon June 28 through noon July 6.

· The non-safe and sane fireworks are illegal year-round, 24-7.

· If fireworks can leave the ground or go up in the air they are illegal. Illegal fireworks include cherry bombs, bottle rockets, mortars, aerial shells, M-80s and firecrackers.

During the Fourth of July holiday period special teams of police officers and firefighters will be patrolling the City streets tracking down fireworks violators. Once found, the fireworks will be confiscated and the owners will be cited. Repeat offenders could end up in court.

Anyone caught possessing, using or selling dangerous or illegal fireworks is subject to fines ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 as well as criminal prosecution.

How To Report

The number 209-388-SAFE became active June 1, and people are encouraged to report anyone they see or know who is buying, selling or distributing illegal fireworks. Someone will answer the line as available, but all messages will be followed up on.

Residents can report illegal fireworks displays before the holidays by calling 911.

During July 3 and 4 people are being asked to call 209-388-SAFE (7233) to report illegal fireworks displays, not 911, in order to keep the emergency dispatchers free for urgent calls.

On July 3 and 4 there will be a call center opened from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. and operators will be answering the phones and sending reports of illegal fireworks directly to dispatchers. The information will be forwarded to teams in the field.

Part of the problem with illegal fireworks is that authorities usually receive multiple calls for any one offender. One neighbor setting off numerous skyrockets can swamp the 911 dispatchers with many calls on the same incident. The 209-388-SAFE number relieves pressure on the emergency dispatchers but still allows the illegal fireworks to get reported and acted upon.

In addition, people can report illegal fireworks by sending an email to celebratesafe@cityofmerced.org. Those emails will also get forwarded to authorities.

A third option is to report illegal fireworks using the Merced Connect app. The Merced Connect app is free and available at the Apple Store and Google Play. In addition to allowing you to report illegal fireworks, residents can obtain other information about City government.

The City also will hold a fireworks Safe Surrender Day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 30 at Station 51, 99 E. 16th St. where people can turn in illegal fireworks with no questions asked.


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