The noisy nightmare of New Year’s seems to come earlier every year for 10-year-old husky Gigi.
Sporadic “bombs” have been dominating Oahu’s skies since September, according to Gigi’s owner Linda Vannatta. Her impression is backed up by dozens of accounts from Oahu residents, policymakers and law enforcement.
“If I don’t give Gigi medication and she hears those booms, she will literally pace back and forth for hours even after the noise is gone,” Vannatta said. “I can afford the medication for one night, but I have been giving it to her every Friday and Saturday night for several weeks now and it’s $20 a dose.”
The number of firework permits issued by the city was up 45% from last year, totaling 20,286 for 2021 — bringing in over $500,000 to the city for New Year’s permits alone, said Ted Muraoka, a Honolulu Fire Department fireworks inspector. In 2011, the city restricted fireworks other than firecrackers to only a few days a year — New Year’s, Chinese New Year, the Fourth of July and certain events such as weddings.
But those permit figures don’t capture the many fireworks that people set off outside the designated days or without permits. And many observers say that, though there’s no way to get an exact measure, those numbers have shot up dramatically.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about what’s causing the surge.
Honolulu Police Department Capt. Stason Tanaka believes that more people are trying to “test drive” their fireworks before New Year’s.
Legislator Aaron Johanson thinks it’s a lack of enforcement due to the high standard of proof needed to convict lawbreakers.
Makiki neighborhood board member Samuel Mitchell said it’s an increase in fireworks salespeople showing off their products.
Kymberly Pine, former state representative and Honolulu City Council member, said it’s the lack of inspection at shipping ports.
Others have even speculated that it’s a way to blow off steam after two years of coping with Covid-19.
But one thing is clear: the stakes aren’t high enough to deter people from setting off illegal fireworks during the 362 days of the year when they’re outlawed.
In 2011, a special Illegal Fireworks Task Force recommended increasing permitting fees and fines, decriminalizing fireworks offenses to make prosecution easier and implementing random inspections of shipping containers. A decade later, little has changed.
Now, with New Year’s right around the corner, law enforcement and policymakers find themselves dealing with the same problems on a larger scale.
Where’s The Crackdown?
HPD says it’s hard to enforce the law without the help of residents.
On Friday, HPD held a press conference announcing a crackdown on firework violators, but Tanaka did not specify the number of additional officers dedicated to the effort, which will only be for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
From Thanksgiving to Dec. 21, only one arrest and six citations were issued, according to HPD. Tanaka said law enforcement lacks the technology to track fireworks from the sky and largely relies on public reporting.
“We have a finite amount of resources, so we encourage the community to help us,” Tanaka said. He suggested that people provide a written statement and video evidence to help prosecute violators.
But Pine said people are reluctant to report their neighbors. Reporters can remain anonymous, Tanaka said, but prosecution can be a challenge without eyewitnesses.
Honolulu prosecutors said that because fireworks cases are charged criminally, “proof beyond a reasonable doubt still requires more extensive investigation than may be required for administrative or civil proceedings,” according to a 2019 report, “Blast From The Past,” by the Legislative Reference Bureau.
In January, as the chair of the Legislature’s Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, Johanson introduced House Bill 1245 to make it easier to prosecute firework violators and increase fines. Under the bill an officer would be able to fine someone for illegal use or possession of pyrotechnics, much like a speeding ticket.
State agencies, animal activists and civilians widely supported its passage, noting that it would take weight off the judicial system and raise the penalties for violators.
The bill passed in the House in March but it has not yet been heard in the Senate.
“I have hope that the bill will continue to move and it really helps that the prosecutors support it,” Johanson said.
How Do The Fireworks Get Here?
No one’s quite sure where the fireworks are coming from, but one 2021 House bill aimed to increase inspections of goods arriving at ports and stop the flow.
In 2020, the City Council adopted Pine’s Resolution 20-16 urging the Legislature to request an audit of harbor inspection procedures to increase the inspection of imports.
She said that a solution would have required the state Department of Agriculture to get enough new funding to inspect all shipments coming into the state.
But it’s difficult to pin down who has the authority to regulate the incoming shipments.
Cargo inspections by the state Department of Agriculture are limited to looking for pests. Local police require probable cause to obtain search warrants to inspect cargo containers. The Coast Guard inspection program is focused on ensuring that hazardous materials are transported properly, while Customs and Border Protection inspects foreign shipments only, according to the 2011 Illegal Fireworks Task Force.
In January, several lawmakers introduced House Bill 35 to establish a shipping container inspection program and a special fund to pay for it. The bill would use explosive-sniffing dogs to inspect all shipping containers and increase the maximum fine from $2,000 to $5,000 for certain violations of the fireworks law.
However, soon after its introduction, influential players including Matson Inc., the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii opposed it or asked for substantial amendments.
Matson said additional inspections could significantly delay the movement of cargo, suggesting that inspections take place at a secure site away from the commercial harbor. The ILWU strongly opposed the bill, warning that inspection fees for each container would increase the cost of goods for residents. And the chamber voiced concerns for small businesses that would be impacted by potential slowdown in delivery of perishable goods.
The bill was tabled two weeks later.
‘It’s A Quality Of Life Issue’
Until laws are changed or police are able to better enforce current laws, Vannatta fears that her dog will continue to be frightened by fireworks.
As a third-generation Kaneohe resident, she said New Year’s used to be a time of celebration. But now, she dreads going on walks with her dog months before and after Jan. 1.
“I was planning a trip and we were going to take it mid-January and I actually waited until mid-February because I don’t want the dog-sitter to have to deal with my dog and the fireworks.”
Honolulu's Firework Control Law
Permitted fireworks are legal from 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve to 1 a.m. on New Year’s Day; from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Chinese New Year’s Day; and from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the Fourth of July; or as allowed by permit for a proposed cultural use.
It’s illegal to purchase consumer fireworks more than five calendar days before those time periods.
It’s unlawful to sell consumer fireworks after 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s Day, 6 p.m. on Chinese New Year’s Day, and 8 p.m. on the Fourth of July.
It’s illegal to sell fireworks to minors.
Each violation can led to a fine of not more than $2,000.
For the full list of laws, details on permitting and penalties for violations, click here.
Hawaiian Humane Society spokesman Daniel Roselle said it’s very difficult to help pet owners prepare by getting the pets inside or using medication to ease anxiety when fireworks go off at random times. According to dozens of posts on Oahu Facebook pages for lost pets, many pets run away after being rattled by firework booms.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi a letter on Dec. 22, requesting the ban of all fireworks year-round, giving the city complimentary posters to educate the public on the harm fireworks cause animals.
PETA Campaigner Katerina Davidovich said the move is essential not just for the well-being of pets but also wildlife such as native birds. In one case, hundreds of dead birds were found on Kailua beach after a New Year’s fireworks display.
Davidovich said that veterans and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder can be deeply disturbed and traumatized by the noise of the explosives.
“It may seem more fun and harmless to some, but it’s a quality of life issue that’s taken a toll on so many people,” Johanson said. “It’s just one of those laws that no one enforces.”
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Lauren Teruya was a Poynter-Koch reporting fellow for Honolulu Civil Beat. She is a graduate of Iolani School and holds a master's degree in specialized journalism from the University of Southern California.