Great Lakes Journal: Rockets' red glare, cities' red ink, and illegal fireworks

We Ohioans eagerly look forward to the Fourth of July. We love fireworks displays -- actually, we have a fondness for anything that blows up. But this year, the skies of the Buckeye State will be considerably less festive than usual.

Some Ohio towns have been forced to severely cut back their Indepdence Day displays, or cancel them entirely. When the Cleveland suburb of Euclid canned its annual sky party, the mayor explained that, in light of a new 2.5 percent to 3 percent for city workers, it would seem callous to spend money to blow stuff up. Euclid also saved the estimated $150,000 cost of traffic control and cleanup by canceling the event.
Nearby Parma also deep-sixed its $25,000 show as it struggles with a $2.4 million tax shortfall. Strapped cities across the country -- Colorado Springs, Colorado; Mesa, Arizona; San Jose, California -- are dousing their fireworks.

Those cities that haven't canceled the Fourth of July may find themselves facing a situation similar to that of Toledo, Ohio, where rumors are circulating about a "Blue Flu": a police sick-out on Saturday, to protest the layoff of 46 officers.

Of course, that leaves an estimated 14,000 celebrations on the nation's schedule this week. But come to think of it, in an economy like this, why would any of those municipalities go ahead with festivities?

Because the event is too important to both citizens and businesses. 14,000 shows will take place in the U.S. this week. In the summer of the staycation, when many families have chosen to save money by staying home, local family events have taken on a new importance. And downtown merchants in larger cities -- especially the hotels and restaurants where business is suffering -- are eager to lure customers.

Many fireworks displays are funded by donors and sponsors who probably fear a backlash from pulling out. In Columbus, Ohio, the sponsors are a roster of heavyhitters: Pepsi (PEP), AEP (AEP), Marathon (MRO), and Meijer. In New York City, Macy's (M) continues to foot the bill for a full-tilt show, while Target (TGT) does the same for Detroit.

Perhaps hospitals should consider becoming sponsors. This weekend is usually, sadly, good for business. Seven people died in fireworks mishaps in 2007, and 7,000 were sent to the emergency room, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission; 1,400 hurt their hands, and a thousand hurt their eyes. Half suffered burns, and 8 percent were admitted to the hospital.

Some were obviously careless. "A 23-year-old Illinois man and friends were shooting fireworks inside an apartment," notes one CPSC report finding. "According to fire officials, the fireworks were probably Roman candles. One of the fireworks lodged in a bed, blanket, or mattress starting a fire. The victim was overcome by smoke inhalation. There was extensive smoke and structural damage to the property."

Got that? No fireworks inside your house this year. Of course, your fireworks could still malfunction; the CPSC tested 211 imported fireworks shipments (97 percent from China) and found that fully 49 percent contained fireworks that were out of compliance with U.S. standards. That stat alone should blow the lid off the industry.

Ironically for us Ohioans, it's illegal to use fireworks here. Shops sell fireworks all over the state -- with the "understanding" that the purchaser is required by law to transport them out of the state within 48 hours. Riiiiiiiight.

So fireworks are a frivolous expense and a dangerous product. But no way should we put out the fuse this year. The noise and vivid spectacle is guaranteed to blow away our worries about unemployment, state budget shortfalls, school funding crises, and environmental threats -- if only for an hour or two. And we need that. When a society gives up its celebrations, it risks losing something much more fundamental than a dividend or a new car. We weaken the bonds that hold us together.

So you can have my fireworks when you pry them from my dead, cold fingers. Which, by the way, I fully intend to keep attached to my hands on the night of the Fourth.
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