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Local

After fireworks season, authorities report injuries, fewer calls

Burned out

Jerry Kelley was not the only person to address the Newton City Council about his displeasure with this year’s fireworks ordinance, but he was the only one to bring with him a bag of debris from the spent rockets fired off in his neighborhood.

“This is what we picked up in our yard,” Kelley said to the council Monday evening, holding the Ziploc outright. Newton Mayor Mike Hansen noted he, too, had found remnants of consumer-grade fireworks in his yard from Fourth of July celebrations. Kelly was one of three people who voiced their concerns.

Claiming the trajectory of some types of fireworks are unpredictable, Kelley requested aerial fireworks be banned in residential areas. He also suggested the city should limit use to only two hours as opposed to three, or from 8 to 10 p.m. on July 4. Kelley targeted unclaimed debris and safety concerns as his main deciding factors.

Newton residents Dixie Cassady and Max Tipton also shared their thoughts with council members. Living in Newton since 1958, Tipton said this was his first time he ever had an issue he wanted to talk to the Newton City Council about. Unbothered by the noise of fireworks, Tipton more so had a problem with the leftover debris blowing onto his property.

“My wife and I spent considerable time cleaning up the pool and picking up big stuff out of the yard,” Tipton said. “I told the neighbor that some of that stuff had to be hot because it stuck to the solar blanket when it came down.”

As someone who consistently spoke against fireworks a year ago at council meetings, Cassady felt like she “was in the middle of a war zone” during the Fourth of July fireworks session. Convinced the police officers have better things to do, however, Cassady decided against calling the Newton Police Department to complain or report infractions.

Injuries in town and state

Despite Newton law enforcement receiving fewer fireworks calls this year compared to 2018 and 2017, local emergency personnel reported to what Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik believed to be the first fireworks-related injuries to occur in town since the city ordinance allowed citizens to use the pyrotechnics on their own property.

“The past two years we really didn’t have any injuries — this year we did,” Wellik said, noting his first responders reported to a fireworks-related incident involving two people with burns and transported another person with an eye injury from MercyOne Newton Medical Center to Iowa City during the Fourth of July.

Other fireworks injuries were reported throughout the state. The Des Moines Register reported a man died after being struck in the head by a firework in Atalissa. One man lost a hand while two others had serious injuries, the Muscatine Journal reported. Wellik said the burn injury incident took place in rural Newton.

“(They) were treated and released,” he added. “The other one was being transferred for an evaluation of the eye injury. I don’t know the outcome.”

Call volume decreases

According to data provided by the Newton Police Department, dispatch had received 120 fireworks-related calls from June 1 to July 8, the allotted time in which the state legally allows Iowans to use fireworks; people may also “use or explode consumer fireworks” between Dec. 10 and Jan. 3 of each year, barring any city-imposed limitations.

In 2018 and 2017, the police department reported 142 and 189 fireworks calls, Newton Police Lt. Bill Henninger told the Newton Daily News Monday. This year, police issued eight citations for illegal fireworks use, up from seven citations last year. Violators may be issued a fine of $250.

Data suggests calls for service involving fireworks have gradually decreased in Newton every year since state legislation permitted Iowans to freely fire off their collections for Independence Day and New Year’s Eve celebrations. The reduction in calls, Henninger said, can be interpreted a few ways.

“Possibly one is that people are getting more used to hearing the fireworks go off and maybe they’re not calling in as much,” he said. “And also people are becoming educated to the fact that there are certain hours that they can shoot the fireworks off and that’s it. So I think there’s a little bit of both going on there.”

Fireworks codes

State code allows the governing bodies of cities and counties to adopt ordinances or resolutions that impose stricter fireworks limitations if they so choose.

After much debate, the Newton City Council decided against a proposed fireworks ban in late 2018 and settled on restricting use to three hours on the Fourth of July. As part of the deal, council outlawed the use of fireworks on New Year’s Eve entirely.

Between 8 and 11 p.m. July 4, the public could legally fire shells no bigger than 1-inch in diameter and multiple tube devices packed with 250 grams or less of powder within city limits. Per state law, city officials could not prohibit the sale of fireworks exceeding the council-approved size limits.

In 2017, former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed last-minute legislation permitting Iowans to sell, use and possess consumer-grade fireworks within state boundaries

Not on city property

Wellik stressed fireworks can only be used on citizens’ “own, private property,” acknowledging some people had been firing them off on city property such as Agnes Patterson Park during the Fourth of July festivities.

“Completely illegal. Very difficult to catch. I was through there numerous times. I would come down through (the park) and there would be nothing, and then in my rearview mirror I would see something go flying up and go off. People are just not following the rules,” Wellik said.

Even though the operators of the city-organized fireworks show had permission to use their display pyrotechnics in the park under supervision from the Newton Fire Department, citizens could not legally fire their collection in the same space.

City code recognizes novelty fireworks like sparklers or snakes “can be discharged on a public place so long as all trash, wrappers, and wires are properly disposed of.”

According to city code, people can only “discharge a consumer fireworks device on real property they own or on property where consent has been given.” When they are used on city property, Wellik said the incidents have to be enforced criminally by officers of the Newton Police Department.

Enforcement is a challenge

Henninger said the police department received 19 calls for service on July 4 this year regarding fireworks, the same as last year. On July 4, 2017, Newton police reported 43 fireworks calls. Issuing citations can be difficult for officers. A lesser degree of probable cause is needed to prove and issue a citation for a municipal infraction.

“If there’s evidence that shows that the person in charge of the property has taken part in shooting off of the fireworks illegally, as long as we have some circumstantial evidence — like maybe there’s several packages of those spent firecrackers laying on the front lawn — and we determine who is control of the house, we can cite them with a municipal infraction based on that,” Henninger said.

Criminal charges raises the bar for probable cause even higher since officers must have an eye witness or an admission to charge somebody with a steeper offense. Newton Police need overwhelming evidence to bring a criminal charge before a judge. Having folks agree to testify publicly can be a challenge. Henninger’s opinion is most people don’t want to argue and fight with their neighbors.

“So they’re not going to be the ones that raise their hands real quick and say, ‘Hey! I’ll go to court. I’ll testify.’ They want to put it back on the police department to handle that — and that’s what we’re here for — but it’s also frustrating when we have to explain that sometimes I don’t have enough evidence to charge the person,” Henninger said.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

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