Sheriff wants tighter fireworks show rules

Rockets may not glare red as often if Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley gets his way.

Hawley presented a proposal to amend the dates public displays of fireworks are allowed to the Board of Island County commissioners at a work session last Wednesday.

The goal of the proposed update to the county code would put Island County in compliance with state laws regarding the dates and times consumer, or safe and sane, fireworks can be lit.

The change would also limit larger, public displays to those same dates, said Sheriff’s Office Spokeswoman Jan Smith.

Hawley said his proposal follows the public outcry after a display last summer on the south end of the island surprised nearby residents.

“It’s not that I’m against fireworks,” Hawley said. “I’m trying to save taxpayers’ money. Anytime anybody is setting off fireworks, our office will incur a lot of extra costs.”

Hawley said that during last August’s show staged from a barge in Useless Bay, his office received more than 300 emergency 911 calls through I-COM in a period of 20 minutes. Each 911 call costs the Sheriff’s office approximately $25, he said.

“We were caught kind of off guard by the intensity of the response,” Hawley said.

Hawley said he is proposing to change the county code to be in sync with state regulations.

Hawley said the county code is out of compliance with current state regulations. Under state law, so-called safe and sane fireworks are legal to set off between June 28 and July 5 and again on New Year’s Eve. Under county code, however, those dates are June 28 through July 6 and not on New Year’s.

County Commissioner Mac McDowell said he is not ready to respond yet to Hawley’s request because of the ambiguity of what is being asked. McDowell said he is concerned about revoking a privilege that is allowed under state law.

“I’m not convinced yet we should take away the right of the people to hire professional, safe forms of entertainment,” he said. “Maybe there is something short of taking the total rights away.”

The Sheriff’s Office averages about two applications for permits per year outside of the Fourth of July holiday, Hawley said.

Under current county code, those wishing to put on large, public fireworks displays must apply to the sheriff for a permit. The sheriff has the power to adopt rules and regulations for granting of those permits.

Currently, no set criteria exists for who can receive a permit. According to the county code, applicants must only have a state license, pay a $10 fee and have adequate insurance.

McDowell said the sheriff currently has sufficient options to prevent a public outcry. The commissioners are considering options such as increased public notification policies and a maximum length of the display, he said.

“I think the sheriff has a huge bag of tools he can use,” McDowell said. “If he is understaffed, then he can not issue a permit.”

And that is what Hawley said he intends to do. Although he does not currently have any applications on his desk, he said he will deny any permits due to safety reasons.

The private show on South Whidbey has been conducted in August in recent years by Tony Barghausen, a mainland businessman, and is timed to coincide with Seafair festivities in Seattle. He could not be reached for comment.

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