Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Sparklers -- a seemingly innocuous but illegal part of July Fourth -- are about to become a burning issue in Suffolk County.
A proposal surfaced last week that would make sparklers, long banned along with other fireworks statewide, legal in Suffolk around Independence Day and New Year's.
At the same time, firefighters here and across the state are girding for county-by-county battles to stop similar local measures.
Those battles, already underway, were spurred by state legislation signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last year. The measure gave local counties and cities -- except New York City -- the option to legalize sparklers by dropping them from the list of "dangerous fireworks," which are banned in the penal law.
The measure would permit wood sparklers, "fountains" that are set on the ground and emit a shower of sparks, and novelties such as "party poppers" and "snappers."
The fireworks industry has lined up lobbying heavyweights, including Michael McKeon, who was the top press aide to former Republican Gov. George Pataki, and Suffolk's former Democratic County Executive Patrick Halpin. Both work for Mercury Public Affairs, a public relations firm with offices in New York and other major cities across the country.
The Firemen's Association of the State of New York, which represents 90,000 volunteer firefighters statewide, has put together battle plans and press kits for local firefighters to fight back.
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), sponsor of the Suffolk bill, said he hadn't been aware that sparklers were illegal. He said he put forward the proposal because he believes the fireworks can be used safely under proper supervision.
However, he concedes the idea is controversial and plans to meet with local fire officials about their concerns. Gregory said he put in the bill after meeting with Halpin.
'An American tradition'
"It's just a commonsense measure -- part of an American tradition," said McKeon, who was hired by Alabama-based TNT Fireworks, the nation's largest producer. He said New York has become the 47th state to allow sparklers. McKeon said nine states have made the move since 2000, without an increase in accidents. He said it's a way for small businesses to increase revenue and bring more sales tax into the state.
Opponents warn that sparklers and other novelty devices accounted for 34 percent of the 9,600 fireworks injuries treated in emergency rooms nationwide in 2011.
"They may appear innocent, but these sparklers are not safe in the hands of 5- to 7-year-olds," said Bob McConville, FASNY president and chairman of Selden's fire commission board. "What parent wants to see their child with a device that can burn at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit and scar them for life?"
In upstate Essex County, with about 39,000 people, the board of supervisors voted last Monday to permit local sparkler sales.
But a day later, the Niagara County Legislature withdrew similar legislation after firefighters opposed it in a public hearing. A Niagara legislative spokesman said the GOP majority still is weighing overall public sentiment.
Fireworks industry officials said legalization efforts also are underway in Westchester, Chemung, Yates, Lewis, Rensselaer, Ulster and Saratoga counties, though so far not in Nassau.
"We . . . believe that the best public policy is to have these items regulated and out in the open," Jerry Bostocky, sales vice president of the Ohio fireworks company B.J. Alan Co., said in a letter to Gregory.
"By enacting this local law, many of your constituents who already travel out of state to purchase larger fireworks will stay right here at home and . . . use these safer smaller devices," Bostocky wrote.
Fire officials worry that sparklers stored for later use could endanger volunteer firefighters who show up to fight a blaze. They also fear measures such as Gregory's represent a first step to loosen limits further.
"Two years from now, the industry will want to be selling Roman candles and go to the next level. We want to nip it in the bud once and for all," McConville said.
Sales around holidays
The new state law allows counties to permit sparkler sales from June 1 to July 5 and Dec. 26 to Jan. 2 each year. Similar measures have won legislative approval but repeatedly were vetoed by governors dating to 2001, when Pataki killed a measure in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Cuomo signed the bill last year after it was revised to allow only wood sparklers, which burn at a lower temperature than those made of metal, and require local governments to opt in affirmatively, rather than opt out.
Suffolk County Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), whose father is a volunteer fireman, said she opposes the proposal and that lawmakers should heed those who put themselves at risk with every fire.
"When firefighters are speaking with one voice we need to take it seriously," she said. "We have to listen to those who go out every day to protect us."