Fireworks education focus of Siesta groups, county officials

The July Fourth fireworks downtown are launched from City Island. Photo by Norman Schimmel

This year, at the request of Siesta Key organizations, including the SKA and the Siesta Key Condominium Council, county officials are collaborating to try to educate people — especially tourists — about the state fireworks law, SKA President Catherine Luckner told members during her organization’s June 7 regular meeting.

That effort is linked to the need to protect the county’s beach-nesting birds and the turtles that nest on the barrier islands, Don Damron, the Sarasota County Fire Department’s senior fire inspector and plans reviewer, pointed out.

“If it explodes or becomes airborne,” Damron said, “it is illegal to possess and to use in the state of Florida unless you are under a permit to do so.”

Still, he said, trying to stop the use of such fireworks “is like trying to kill ants.”

In most cases, Damron said, people have purchased fireworks outside Sarasota County and are unaware of the state law. “They don’t understand that it’s illegal for them to have [the materials].”

In response to a request Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson made of staff on May 23, Carolyn N. Brown, the county’s general manager of parks and recreation, notified Luckner in a June 7 email that signs were being made to educate the public about fireworks. Those signs will be installed at park entrances, Brown wrote Luckner, so “the public will see [them] and law enforcement can then hold [people] accountable” for using illegal fireworks.

“It is our intention to keep the signs up through July,” Brown wrote, “and then put [them] up again around the end of December through the New Year for any New Year celebrations.”

Early the morning of June 7, Luckner told the SKA audience members, Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County — formerly the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau — had emailed her, offering to notify members of the tourism industry and visitors about not bringing personal fireworks to the beach.

“That’s going to be a tremendous help,” Luckner said.

Additionally, the Condo Council will be providing notices to everyone renting units around the time of the July Fourth holiday, Luckner said.

Late last week, Luckner told The Sarasota News Leader, a company based in Port St. Lucie, with locations in Sarasota and Bradenton, sent thousands of mailers to residents and all the condo complexes on Siesta Key, touting its supply of fireworks, including those with names such as “Lawbreaker” and “Destruction.” Luckner noted the flyers say that not all the items advertised are available. Still, the SKA was encouraging the condo complexes and hotels to throw out the flyers, so visitors, especially, would not be encouraged to purchase illegal fireworks.

She was planning to drop off copies of the flyer at the Sheriff’s Office’s Community Policing Station on Ocean Boulevard and at the Sarasota County Fire Marshal’s Office.

During his remarks at the June 7 meeting, Damron said he had had 16 years of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce July Fourth fireworks show figuratively under his belt. He and his nine other inspectors work closely with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office to ensure members of the public shoot off nothing but the types of sparklers allowed by state law, he added.

The Fire Department does not have the right to confiscate illegal fireworks, Damron said; only members of the Sheriff’s Office can do that.

In years past, Sgt. Scott Osborne of the Sheriff’s Office said, he and other deputies had focused on arresting dealers of illegal fireworks. “But that may change this year,” he said.

One plan he was working on, Osborne said, was a means of putting a public address system on one of the department’s all terrain vehicles, so he could make an announcement to the July Fourth crowd on Siesta Public Beach that all illegal fireworks would be confiscated.

He would like to be able to do that about 45 minutes before the Chamber launched its show, he said.

When SKA board member Joyce Kouba asked whether fire and law enforcement officials had been able to keep the public out of the nests of the endangered snowy plovers on Siesta Key during the July Fourth celebration, Osborne told her, “We have been successful in the past.”

He suggested that clearly identified representatives of Sarasota Audubon station themselves near any active nests this year, to assist with that effort.

Damron noted that he and Siesta Chamber members in years past had moved their fireworks detonation station as much as 60 feet away from their intended location, to avoid disrupting turtle nests.

During his presentation, Damron also pointed out that a 40-page, double-sided, single-spaced document regarding the use of sparklers provides all the details about those devices that are allowed in the state.

When area stores get in their sparkler supplies prior to the July Fourth holiday, Damron said, managers call the Fire Department, so inspectors can check the stocks against those allowed on that 40-page list.

“So if you buy anything in any of these stores,” Damron said, “you can be confident it is all right to use.”

So far, he said, he had not had any requests this year for permits for tent sales featuring the legal sparklers. Last year, he said, only one religious organization had sought such a permit.

“It’s only the 7th of June,” he pointed out, so that group still had time to seek a permit.

“Poppers,” so-named because they make a popping sound when they hit the ground, also are legal, he said.

One company has two stores in Sarasota that sell illegal fireworks — what he calls “the hot stuff,” Damron said. Those stores are allowed to do so because the state statute has “a gap … big enough to drive a tractor-trailer through.”

People who own fish hatcheries, railroads and quarry pits may buy the explosive fireworks legally, he added. The law gives the Fire Department the right to inspect premises of those businesses, he said.