Used boxes of firecrackers litter Francisville Playground on a June morning

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Fireworks! We’re all talking about them! In Philly, and all over the country, folks are saying it feels like there’s been a massive influx of people lighting off firecrackers in their neighborhoods.

If you’re annoyed by the regularity and intensity of the blasts, you’re not alone. From May 29 to June 21, the Philadelphia Police Department says it has gotten 947 emergency calls complaining about a “boom” or “explosive” sound.

That’s not quite as bad as other cities. Boston clocked 1,445 complaints in the first week of June — compared to just 22 that week in 2019, and NYC authorities have received 230x more fireworks-related complaints than previous years.

Up and down the East Coast, people have been freaking out in neighborhood Facebook groups and on Nextdoor apps, even speculating that the loud nighttime booms might actually be a government conspiracy.

As it happens, 2020 marks the first year people in Philly are legally allowed to set off fireworks during the weeks leading up to Independence Day.

After years of prohibition, and then a confusing moment in the middle of summer 2019 when Pennsylvania and Philadelphia laws were in direct conflict, fireworks are now allowed in the city. Unless you obtain a permit, you’re only supposed to set off certain kinds of the display explosives, following specific guidelines.

The relaxation of fireworks regulations is not a regional thing either. There’s been a mass liberalization of fireworks laws around the country for individual consumers in recent years.

William Weimer, VP of national retailer Phantom Fireworks, told Slate sales are up 15% this year, and American Pyrotechnics Association executive director Julie Heckman said her members are anticipating a banner year across the board. Billboards advertising fireworks distributors have lined I-95, and a few Philadelphians have reported getting advertising mailers.

Some people are so fed up with the booms that they’ve taken action, like a Mt. Airy resident who started a task force to make fireworks illegal in Philadelphia again.

What is actually allowed in Philly?

Here’s a rundown on what you can and can’t set off — and what rules you have to follow.

What’s legal in Philly

You might remember that Pennsylvania legalized firework sales across the state back in December 2017. At the time, the statewide law legalizing firecrackers for consumer use didn’t quite jibe with Philly’s fireworks rules.

While Pa. House Bill 542 allowed in-state businesses to sell the airborne sparklers to residents, it did not change Philadelphia’s Fire Code — which strictly prohibits people actually using them within city limits (unless you have a permit). The two laws were basically in direct conflict, and for Fourth of July in 2018, everything was confusing as officials sent out mixed messages.

It took a year and a half, but local laws were finally updated to match the state ones. Mayor Jim Kenney signed the updated fire code on July 3, 2019. (Yes, you read that right, July 3.)

With the stroke of Kenney’s pen, Philadelphians were able to legally set off:

  • Ground-based fireworks
  • Firecrackers
  • Roman candles
  • Bottle rockets
  • Other Class C fireworks, also known as “consumer grade”
  • NOT fireworks with more than 50 milligrams of explosive materials
  • NOT “display” fireworks, which contain professional-grade pyrotechnics

But there are some pretty strict rules that govern the at-home firecracker usage:

  1. You have to be at least 18 years old.
  2. You can’t set off fireworks within 150 feet of an occupied structure — including houses or commercial buildings that are in use.
  3. You can’t light a fuse under any trees or power lines.
  4. And must have permission (in writing) from whoever owns the land. So unless you get the green light from Parks & Rec, that crosses off most of the public space that would be big enough to meet the first rule.

“This essentially makes it very difficult for the use of fireworks to be legal in most of the city,” a city spokesperson told Billy Penn last year.

Following all the rules or not, residents are def setting off plenty of fireworks.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...