Assembly committee opts not to ban fireworks in Juneau

Fireworks are not a big enough public nuisance or safety risk in Juneau to warrant a partial or outright ban. That was the message Fire Chief Rich Etheridge and Assistant Police Chief Page Decker delivered to the CBJ Assembly Committee of the Whole last night, Nov. 19.

Etheridge said emergency responders don’t deal with a lot of fireworks related calls. In the last five years, he said only one person was treated at Bartlett Regional Hospital for a significant injury from fireworks, and they were medevac’d from another community. The chief also said the Capital City has not seen a fireworks related structure fire in more than five years.

“We don’t have the call volume. We aren’t having people injured. We aren’t having the structure fires that are being caused by fireworks. So, from the public safety end, fireworks aren’t a huge concern,” Etheridge said.

Decker said Juneau police respond to an average of 69 nuisance fireworks complaints each year. Not surprisingly, most of those occur around the 4th of July and New Years Eve. To put that in perspective, he said JPD responds to about 4,000 disturbance complaints a year.

An ordinance in city code prohibits the sale of fireworks within city limits, but possession is legal and there’s no law against setting them off. However, it is illegal to set off fireworks on federal land, such as within the Tongass National Forest.

Decker said local police do charge people with reckless endangerment or disturbing the peace if their use of fireworks becomes a problem.

“You do have recourse, and it’s all in the disturbing the peace statute talks about “reasonableness.” The farther you get away from the 4th of July or New Years, the more unreasonable it really becomes to have those kinds of sounds going off in your neighborhood,” Decker said.

The Assembly asked for the presentation after some members heard a spike in complaints from residents. Assembly member Karen Crane said she would support a partial ban on fireworks, with exceptions for days close to the 4th of July and New Years.

“It’s the same thing like with seatbelts or helmets. If the law is there, the majority of people would obey it, and it would cut down on the number of complaints,” Crane said.

Decker and Etheridge said Crane was probably right, but a partial ban would do little to change how the police and fire departments respond to fireworks calls.

Mayor Merrill Sanford – a former Division Chief with Capital City Fire and Rescue – said complaints about fireworks increase every so often and there isn’t much the city can do about it.

“Those of us who’ve been here awhile have sat through this stuff three or four times now. It comes up every two or three years, every four years, and we look at it and then make a decision on whether or not we want to get more enforcement or stay the same,” Sanford said.

In the end the Assembly decided it would be best to stay with the status quo. By unanimous vote the Committee of the Whole tabled the issue indefinitely.