The 248th birthday of the United States is approaching, which means it’s fireworks season.
There are plenty of professional displays folks can watch, but if you’re looking to set off some of your own pyrotechnics, that’s also an option in Philadelphia. Well, kind of.
Fireworks laws have recently gone through a number of changes — and caused a good bit of confusion — in Philly and Pennsylvania.
State legislation in 2017 legalized the sale and use of “consumer fireworks” in Pennsylvania, but it took several years for Philly’s Fire Code to catch up and actually allow use in the city. Last year, a week after July 4, the Pa. state legislature passed a new set of regulations on fireworks, with some lawmakers citing firework-related complaints from constituents.
The bottom line now, in the year 2023? Consumer fireworks like bottle rockets and firecrackers are legal for adults to buy and use, but with lots of conditions attached — and those conditions might make it difficult for Philadelphians to use them, or even find a place to obtain them.
This year, Pennsylvania has been seeing drought conditions and a high number of wildfires, so the Pa. fire commissioner and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are encouraging Pennsylvanians to either leave displays to the professionals or be really cautious in setting off personal fireworks.
If you’re still interested in getting some fireworks yourself, here’s a rundown of what to know.
Are fireworks legal to buy and sell in Philadelphia?
Technically, yes. But there are some caveats.
First of all, you can’t buy, possess, or use any type of firework unless you’re a legal adult — so if you’re under 18, sorry.
For anyone 18+, Pennsylvania law allows purchase, possession, and use of “consumer” or “Class C” aerial fireworks. That includes:
- Roman candles
- Bottle rockets
- Other fireworks that contain at most 50 milligrams of explosive material
Bigger “display fireworks” that include more explosive material can only be by professionals with the proper permits.
Where can you buy fireworks?
Ah, so therein lies the rub for Philadelphians.
Consumer fireworks can only be sold at brick-and-mortar locations with a license from the Pa. Department of Agriculture — and according to a department map of approved sellers, there are none in the city. It’s unclear how up to date that map is — Billy Penn is still waiting on confirmation — but a quick Google search doesn’t yield any stores within the city, either.
You can, however, find a few fireworks retailers in the suburbs.
Where can you set them off?
First of all, you need “express permission” from the owner of the land where you’re setting the fireworks off, per state law — whether it’s private property or public. That includes parks, streets, parking lots, and sidewalks.
And here’s the big limitation for city-dwellers: To legally be allowed to set off fireworks, you have to be at least 150 feet away from any vehicles or buildings — even if the owner of the building/vehicle is the person who’s setting off the fireworks.
You also can’t launch them from within a building or vehicle.
There are also limits if you’re near an “animal housing facility or a fenced area designed to confine livestock” that you don’t own yourself. You can’t set off fireworks within 150 feet of there, and if you’re using them 150 to 300 feet away, you have to give the owner or manager of the livestock at least 72 hours notice before you do it.
When can you set them off?
Philly passed an ordinance in 2020 saying you can’t use them after 9 p.m., except on federal holidays (like July 4).
But the state law passed last year, Act 74 of 2022, outlined a different set of hours — from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. — when municipalities are authorized to limit fireworks use. There are exceptions for certain holidays, including July 4 and the two days before it, when municipalities can choose to enact a 1 a.m. cutoff. In cases like this year where July 4 falls midweek, that later cutoff also applies to the preceding and following Friday and Saturday.
So theoretically, you should be good on July 4 at the very least, since it’s a federal holiday that was excepted from Philly’s 2020 ordinance. As for other days? It’s pretty unclear how those two laws interact, and the city didn’t respond to Billy Penn’s request for clarification.
What other rules are there?
Fireworks aren’t allowed to be launched toward a building, vehicle, or other person. It’s also illegal to intentionally set fireworks off if you’re drunk or under the influence of drugs.
What about sparklers or other firework-adjacent stuff?
Those are legal to buy and use. Per Act 74, items that the American Pyrotechnics Association defines as “ground and hand-held sparkling devices,” “novelties,” or “toy caps” aren’t included in the specific restrictions on consumer fireworks.
What’s important to know safety-wise?
Pa. Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook recommended the following in a press release:
- To avoid burns, don’t allow kids to play with fireworks, including sparklers.
- Adults should light one firework at a time, then quickly back away.
- Don’t point or throw fireworks at other people.
- Keep a bucket of water or hose nearby in case a fire breaks out.
- Never pick up or try to relight a firework that didn’t fully ignite.
- To prevent garbage fires, douse fireworks with water after they’ve burned before you pick them up and throw them away.
- Don’t use fireworks under the influence of alcohol or any medications or substances “that can impair judgment or the ability to react quickly to an emergency.”
- Always stay a safe distance away from the “ignition location” when using consumer fireworks or attending professional displays.
- Be mindful of your neighbors and their pets, especially if you live near military veterans.