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Legislators in both the state House and Senate are exploring ways to clamp down on the escalating use of illegal fireworks, including increased inspection of shipping containers and a new Honolulu Police Department undercover unit to catch users in the act.
“It’s pretty clear at this point that the laws are not working,” said Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole (D, Kaneohe-Kailua), who introduced Senate Bill 2028, which would create HPD’s new undercover unit. “There are a number of issues that are causing the problem, but the primary one is that we have knuckleheads out in our community who know that they can get away with it.”
The use of illegal fireworks in Hawaii is widely known and growing. City paramedics responded to 11 fireworks-related injuries on New Year’s Eve, a number that almost doubled from the previous New Year’s Eve.
Most of the injuries were considered serious or critical and included dismembered fingers, according to Emergency Medical Services.
Others were struck in the face, neck and chest with firework projectiles and shrapnel. Among the injured were a 22-year-old man who received serious injuries to his face, chest and hand in Ewa Beach.
“It’s like a war going on all around you,” said Leigh Prentiss, 75, of Enchanted Lake. “It’s frightening. We’ve had some (homemade bombs) go off in our yard here, and it shakes the whole house.”
HPD said it increased staffing on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 with plainclothes and uniformed officers in each patrol district. Officers made one arrest and issued 32 citations after receiving 800 fireworks-related calls. Among the citations, according to HPD, was one issued at a Kailua home where officers recovered more than 450 pounds of illegal fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
Starting as far back as Nov. 28, there were 3,750 fireworks-related calls to 911.
House Bill 1604 would establish a task force focused on catching illegally imported fireworks and promoting safety and security in their handling at airports and harbors. SB 2923 and HB 1695 would increase the maximum fine for firework violations to $5,000 from $2,000. SB 2743 would establish a program to conduct random shipping container inspections with the help of explosive-sniffing dogs — a tactic that gives James Roller, 65, of Mililani hope.
“It’s not going to do any good to try and enforce the consumers. That’s not working at all,” Roller said. “If they use the tools like the dogs, and they use the tools that’s available to them, I totally believe that it will make an impact.”
Members of both the House and Senate are hearing more complaints about illegal fireworks from their constituents.
“I would say in the last five years or so, ever since the really loud aerials started, we get complaints all the time, year-round,” Keohokalole said. “It really picks up after Halloween, and then there’s just like a general tidal wave of complaints around the holiday time.”
Prentiss supports efforts to try to stop illegal fireworks at airports and harbors, although one of her other concerns, like many others’, is that the call for individuals to report their neighbors can result in retribution.
“You’re going to wind up with slashed tires and stolen mailboxes, all manner of things. I’ve seen it,” Prentiss said. “If one could report anonymously, that would be most helpful.”
Cliff Toyama, a 71 year-old Moanalua Gardens resident, agreed and said that most Hawaii residents don’t like to call the police in general.
Toyama grew up around fireworks. Other than the really loud, homemade fireworks, most aerials don’t affect him much; however, he recognizes the dangers.
“You can tell them to not do something, but in this case you’ve got to make it really expensive,” Toyama said. “The penalty has to be severe, where they don’t want to do it again and they don’t want to get caught because it’s too expensive.”
Prentiss has several concerns about illegal fireworks. First, she’s asthmatic. And on New Year’s Eve she and her husband sequestered themselves in the back bedroom of their house with their dog and cat with all of the windows closed. There they turned up the television volume to drown out the noise of the explosions for their two pets.
On New Year’s Eve 2020, they sedated their 8-year-old golden retriever, Beauregard, but he still became so scared that he dug a hole under their fence to try to escape.
Rep. Amy Perruso (D, Wahiawa-Whitmore-Poamoho), who is backing HB 1604, said she and her legislative colleagues are trying to control illegal fireworks from multiple angles and that the next steps need to be well crafted.
“Our constituents are reaching out for support,” Perruso said. “We’re struggling to see enforcement happening effectively, and we’re really trying to take a more proactive approach.”
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