Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Fireworks booming, but so is red tape

Response to 9-11 adds to paperwork

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

Arthur Rozzi, vice-president of Rozzi's Famous Fireworks in Symmes Township, with file drawers full of applications and licenses now required because of new homeland security regulations.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
WASHINGTON - Sales are skyrocketing. Paperwork is exploding. Red tape is bursting out all over.

The fireworks industry, like many parts of American life, has been forever changed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the nation's response.

Thanks to renewed patriotism, the industry is enjoying record sales, both for consumer fireworks and companies who put on those July 4 displays on city riverfronts or town parks.

But higher insurance rates and new homeland security regulations that took effect in May are bringing the industry back down to earth.

"There's a mountain of paperwork," said Arthur Rozzi, vice president of Rozzi's Famous Fireworks in Loveland, which puts on fireworks shows like the one on Cincinnati's riverfront July 4. "This is a family business. The family members just stay later and work harder to get the things done."

Terrorists have never used fireworks, and yet the fallout from the terrorist attacks, especially for the display companies, has been harsh, said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, which represents 260 manufacturers, distributors, retailers and pyrotechnic companies.

"The burden of regulation has been overwhelming, especially for small companies," she said.

What: Cincinnati's All-American Birthday Celebration
When: 3 p.m.-10:45 p.m. July 4
Where: Sawyer Point on Cincinnati's riverfront
Fireworks: 10 p.m. by Rozzi Family
What else? Daylong family fun festival with food, drinks, interactive games and live music. The Ohio Bancorp.com Fireworks will be choreographed to a patriotic soundtrack that can be heard on 92.5-FM.
More Independence Day events in the Tristate
When Congress created the Homeland Security Department last year, it included new restrictions on explosives, like those used in displays.

It required background checks on people who made, dealt or handled explosives. Some of the forms required fingerprints and photos.

"We never knew who was in possession of explosive material in the United States. Now we do," said Gail Davis, chief of the public safety branch at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, known as the ATF.

Barred from possessing big pyrotechnic fireworks are people with drug convictions, felons, the mentally ill and illegal immigrants.

For service groups or clubs that once relied on amateurs to set off their pyrotechnics, the new rules are proving so onerous some are canceling.

Northern Kentucky's Ryland Lakes Country Club usually asks a club member to set off its July Fourth fireworks. But faced with the new paperwork, the club canceled the show - until "the membership raised hell," said club president Jim Wachs.

The club turned to a professional company, Rozzi's, and the show will go on as planned.

"I feel the same way I do when I go the airport," said Wachs of the new security rules. "I'd rather they overdid it than underdid it."

Roadside stands

The new laws and regulations apply only to the companies that put on shows, not the stores and roadside stands that spring up every year to sell bottle rockets, Roman candles and firecrackers.

But many of the stores have also added security. Some have had to wait for fireworks held up by tougher scrutiny at the nation's ports.

And confusion over the new rules, which took effect May 24, prompted some train companies to temporarily refuse to haul fireworks, worried they'd be violating new homeland security regulations.

"Everything's a slower process now," said Tim McKoy, who owns Area51 Fireworks in Pahrump, Nev. "Everybody's being really cautious because our commodity is considered a low explosive."

"We are on heightened alert in all of our retail showrooms," said Bruce Zolden, vice president of Phantom Fireworks, the nation's largest retailer. "But we have very few products that can be used for bad purposes."

Store fireworks are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the same agency that keeps an eye on malfunctioning cribs and overheating heaters.

The far more powerful explosives in the display fireworks industry are regulated by the ATF, which is part of the new Department of Homeland Security.

Administrative nightmare

For the companies that put on shows, the headaches started even before the new laws took effect, with 20 percent or even 100 percent increases in insurance.

Most holiday fireworks displays are put out for bid and contracted months ahead of time. So the new licensing, criminal background procedures and insurance increases have generally not been passed on yet to towns or cities paying the bill.

Fireworks shows can run from $5,000 to $500,000, said Phil Grucci, executive vice president of Fireworks by Grucci, which has done the fireworks for the last six presidential inaugurations.

A display honoring the Brooklyn Bridge's 120th anniversary in May had to be scaled back to pay for security, he said.

Having every employee licensed is proving time-consuming and paperwork-intensive, he said.

"We have 700 pyrotechnicians. For each and every one of them we submit forms, await their approval, and until we receive that approval those pyrotechnicians are not qualified legally," he said. "It's an administrative nightmare."

The ATF's Davis said her agency was working furiously to process all the license applications from pyrotechnic companies.

"We know people need these permits before July 4," she said. The agency has detailed seven other employees to its 42-person National Explosives Licensing Center in Atlanta.

High demand

The good news for the companies that put on shows is that demand is way up.

Rozzi estimates his business is up 10 percent this year. He'll do about 200 shows, including 70 around the July 4 holiday.

Grucci will be doing 85 shows this holiday from Pearl Harbor to New York City, up from 81 last year. A little over half the company's business occurs around July 4.

For retailers too, sales are way up, which they credit to surging patriotism.

"In my opinion, there's been an increase because of patriotism," said Vince Marsh, vice president of Thunderbolt Fireworks, which has three stores on Florida's space coast. Sales are going up steadily every year, even as more competitors open stores nearby, he said.

Youngstown-based Phantom Fireworks, which runs 36 fireworks stores and more than 1,000 temporary stands, has also seen business boom on its Web site (www.fireworks.com). Customers can't buy fireworks over the Web, but they can order the ones they want and have them shipped to the nearest Phantom Fireworks store.

Last year the company had 122 million hits on its Web site. This year the company is on track to exceed 200 million.

Mike Ingram, president of Fireworks Supermarket in Springfield, Mo., said he expects to break last year's sales record, thanks to the patriotism and some newfangled fireworks such as the Unbelievable Flying Object and Feel The Blast.

"The sales were good last year, and to date this year they're showing an increase over 2002," he said. "We won't know until the 5th of July, but if we have a good weather and everything holds, it could be a record year."


E-mail cweiser@gns.gannett.com

More Independence Day events in the Tristate

If your community or group is planning a holiday-related event this weekend that is open to all, the Enquirer will publicize it. Fax the information to Elaine Trumpey at 755-4150 or e-mail etrumpey@enquirer.com.

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