Foss: City must do more to curb illegal fireworks

Illegal fireworks are set off on Stanley Street in Schenectady on July 4 as an ATV rider pauses to watch.
Illegal fireworks are set off on Stanley Street in Schenectady on July 4 as an ATV rider pauses to watch.

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

I remember setting off fireworks once in college. 

My friends and I headed to the quad and launched our small supply into the darkened Ohio night sky. Then we ran away, laughing our fool heads off. We knew we were doing something wrong, and we didn’t want to get caught. 

As to whether people in Schenectady know they’re doing something wrong when they set off fireworks, I cannot say, because I am not a mind reader. 

What I can say is that they certainly don’t behave as if they’re doing anything wrong. 

Whether this is because they’re unaware of Schenectady’s ban on fireworks, or simply because they don’t expect anyone to hold them accountable, is an interesting question. 

Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: Schenectady residents who flout the law have little to fear from the authorities. 

And until that changes, July 4th will continue to be a headache for those who live in neighborhoods where people insist on blowing things up all night long. 

In a series of photos printed in The Daily Gazette, the use of fireworks appears rampant, despite a new fine of up to $250 per firework illegally launched in the city. 

Among other things, these photos depict a man lighting fireworks in the middle of Stanley Street and fireworks lighting up Emmett Street in Hamilton Hill. In a most telling photo, an ATV heads toward the smoke-and-light-filled fireworks display on Stanley Street — a double-dose of lawlessness, as riding ATVs and dirt bikes on public roadways is illegal. 

You don’t get the sense, looking at these photos, that anyone expects the police to show up and ruin their fun. 

And why would they? 

Despite pleas from Schenectady residents to do more to address the problem of illegal fireworks, police issued at least one citation on July 4th for illegally launching fireworks, to a 23-year-old man caught setting off something known as the “Hong Kong Artillery Shell” on Albany Street. 

One citation. 

That’s it. 

When the Schenectady City Council approved the city’s new fireworks fine in June, some wondered whether it would actually be enforced. A legitimate question, and the skeptics were right to ask it. 

I can’t fault the council for making a good-faith effort to respond to the concerns of residents and for giving the police another tool for cracking down on an undesirable and dangerous activity. 

But it’s not enough. 

The city needs to approach the use of fireworks not as a nuisance to be endured, but as a public health and safety issue that can be mitigated through education and enforcement. 

Problems with fireworks are not unique to Schenectady — a quick Internet search reveals that it’s an issue with which cities throughout America are dealing. 

Dispatches from across the United State tell similar stories of frustrated residents complaining that their neighborhood feels like a war zone every Independence Day, and police explaining how they intend to respond. 

Here are some ideas picked up in my reading: 

Volunteers and police might try doing what one California community did, and visit what the Los Angeles Times refers to as community “hot spots, where we know that there have been problems before in terms of the use of illegal fireworks” and handing out informational brochures and talking to residents before the 4th. 

In Schenectady, fireworks-related outreach should start on Hamilton Hill and Mont Pleasant, two major hot spots for illegal fireworks use. 

Involving the Fire Department in efforts to reduce the use of illegal fireworks might also make sense.

In Albuquerque, N.M., police and fire marshal inspectors teamed up to patrol the city on July 3.  

“We want to make sure that the public is utilizing legal fireworks in a safe manner,” Albuquerque Fire Rescue Marshal Gene Gallegos told the Albuquerque Journal. “Second, educating the public on illegal fireworks versus legal fireworks and third, if necessary, issue a citation on the use of illegal fireworks.”

Which seems like a fairly measured and reasonable approach — one that could perhaps be replicated here in the Capital Region. 

In Las Vegas, police went so far to set up a web address,, where people could report the use of illegal fireworks. The department also deployed teams of police officers and firefighters to look for illegal activity, and warned the public that launching fireworks could result in a $1,000 fine and a fireworks disposal fee.

I’m not sure Schenectady needs to set up a web address devoted to fireworks-related complaints, but the city might benefit from better community engagement. Can residents help the police pinpoint problem areas?  

Every community is different, and what’s feasible in Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Albuquerque might not be feasible here. 

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from other communities grappling with the problem of illegal fireworks. 

July 4th is a year away, which is plenty of time to develop a better plan for containing and reducing the use of illegal fireworks. 

Schenectady residents deserve better than toothless laws and a shrug of the shoulders.

They deserve real enforcement and attention to a problem that puts health and safety at risk. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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