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Officials urge safety this Fourth of July weekend

By Staff | Jul 3, 2009

The Fourth of July is a time for families to come together and celebrate, to watch the fireworks displays, toss some patties on the grill and enjoy the company of loved ones by the pool or on the beach. The word tragedy isn’t a welcome or expected one.
With burning fireworks, hot grills and the various bodies of water in Cape Coral and Southwest Florida, a good-natured party has the potential to turn disastrous this holiday weekend.
In this regard, officials are warning that a little awareness and responsibility goes a long way.
A chief concern for officials this holiday weekend is the dangers of consumer fireworks.
According to city spokesperson Connie Barron, statistically, half of the fires sparked up on the Fourth of July are caused by fireworks. July 4 typically sees the most fires reported of any day of the year, she said.
Additionally, “In 2007, hospital emergency rooms treated an estimated 9,800 people for fireworks-related injuries,” Barron said, citing figures from the National Fire Protection Association.
The city of Cape Coral responded to 167 fireworks complaints last holiday. No structure fires have been ignited as a result of fireworks use in the last three years, however there have been occasional grass fires and smoke investigations.
“Statistically, Cape Coral has been fortunate regarding fireworks incidents, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to let our guard down,” said Dave Webster, public education specialist for the Cape Coral Fire Department. “We’re looking forward to a quiet and uneventful weekend, but we’re ready if the need occurs.”
Webster said that not only are a majority of consumer fireworks in violation of city ordinance, they pose a serious threat.
“Any firework that explodes or leaves ground is illegal,” Webster said.
However, vendors absolve themselves of liability by selling fireworks by signature of a waiver, stating purchasers are licensed to use them for agricultural or other purposes.
Few people fit the criteria in the language of the waivers, and professional pyrotechnicians typically buy from manufacturers directly rather than from vendors, Webster said.
However, various fireworks tents are propped up and residents are still buying the devices.
“We know people are going to use fireworks even though we wish that they would not, but fireworks should only be used by adults, they should be done away from structures, away from children especially, and setting them off in the open field beside your house is not a safe operation,” he said. “The ground is just too dry and there’s too many variables. There’s no guarantee that they’ll go up in the air and explode as you intend them to and fall safely to earth.”
And, Webster said, it isn’t just “the exploding kind” of firework that can be dangerous.
“The tips of sparklers burn at 1,200 degrees, easily hot enough to cause a third-degree burn,” he said. “And yet we hand these to 3- and 4-year-old children. This is not a toy. It can be a dangerous item and it can lead to long term health concerns and tragedy.”
Parents should pay close attention to children and should be the only ones allowed near fireworks, he said.
Ultimately, officials are recommending residents enjoy the holiday’s magnificence–safely–by attending the city’s annual professional show.
“We understand that our citizens want to celebrate the July 4th holiday, and we encourage them to travel to the downtown area to watch the impressive fireworks display at the Red, White & BOOM! event,” Fire Chief Bill Van Helden said in a written release Thursday.
The event will take place along Cape Coral Parkway near the foot of the Cape Coral Bridge Saturday evening, and will feature music, food and fun for a modest admission fee of $1.
Even despite recent rains, forestry officials worry about forest fires.
“The problem is not every area is saturated right now,” said Department of Forestry spokesperson Victor Hill. “There’s still a lot of dry spots. People need to be sensitive to the fact that if these (fireworks) get in heavily wooded areas, they’re going to be responsible for starting a wild fire, and that’s considered arson.”
Hill said that those using personal fireworks should know that it isn’t just them who are affected by a fire.
“It’s not just about the immediate area around you, it’s about your neighbors and the potential to cause damage around you,” Hill said. “We just want people to understand that their actions have consequences and we have to be responsible about what we do on the holidays.”
Hill agreed residents would be safer and better suited to attend the Red, White and Boom celebration, and said all types of fireworks are dangerous.
Even still, “We’re expecting that people are going to be out shooting fireworks off,” Hill said. “So we’re prepared to respond to that.”
Forestry and local fire and police officials will be standing vigilant as always in preparation for the hazards posed by the holiday, Hill said.
While fireworks are a certainly a focus of concern, there are other areas of worry for parents, including swimming, boating, driving and grilling with open fires.
“Care has to be taken with small children,” Webster said. “There should always be somebody at the home pool who is responsible for the children, not participating in any other activity except for paying strict attention to the children. Drownings can happen in a split second.”
Webster also warns about boating dangers.
“Drinking and driving is a danger, drinking and driving your boat is a danger,” Webster said. “You should have a designated driver for your automobile and boat, and protect the safety of everyone that’s in your party.”
Children should wear life vests at all times and they should be available to everyone in the boat, he said.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit, along with the Cape Coral, Sanibel and Fort Myers Police Departments, United States Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, will be targeting those breaking Florida’s boating laws along the waterways of Lee County this weekend.