With illegal fireworks rampant in Hawaii, some say loud booms are getting worse

Coast Guard inspectors are checking shipments for illegal fireworks but say there are simply too many containers to screen all.
Published: Dec. 29, 2022 at 8:12 AM HST|Updated: Dec. 29, 2022 at 3:27 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - New Year’s Eve is just two days away and like always, the night sky will probably be lit up with illegal fireworks. It’s a tradition for many Hawaii families but for others, it’s a living nightmare.

”Every year, it seems to get worse and worse,” said Dr. Will Brown who lives in a condo just mauka of the Ala Wai Canal — a popular spot to light fireworks near Waikiki.

Brown is a retired pediatrician and Vietnam combat veteran and says he can handle the noise during the holiday.

While he can prepare and is expecting it, each year he notices fireworks are being lit off more often on non-holiday nights and with no warning.

Brown says that’s what happened to him just a few days ago.

”I could see a group of people down in the playing field right here next to the apartment building and they were lighting them and one went off right in front of me. They were all laughing and cheering and then were on their way,” said Brown.

The veteran, who suffers from PTSD, says that instance happened during the daylight hours, so he knew where he was and was not awakened or startled by the explosion.

But, all too often that’s not the case.

”Previously this has happened in the middle of the night and when that happens it is a trigger. It takes me right back to being in combat in Vietnam, 55 years ago and it took my partner about an hour to settle me down. I was suicidal because of what was happening,” Brown added.

He is pleading with people to be mindful of their neighbors like him who have proudly served our country and may suffer from underlying and invisible wounds triggered by explosions.

Brown also says many of his neighbors have pets and its also very traumatic for them.

So, with a statewide ban on aerials, why are they still so prevalent and available in Hawaii?

When you take a look out your window on New Year’s Eve, the amount of illegal fireworks you see is stunning. It might surprise you to learn that last year, the Honolulu Police Department only wrote about 37 citations for illegal fireworks.

”When the person is setting off the fireworks, the police officer needs to see them in the act and that, of course is very difficult to do. If you’re setting off fireworks, the police usually take at least a few minutes to show up at the scene by which time the fireworks have already been shot and everyone’s dispersed,” said state Sen. Stanley Chang, who was partly behind legislation to better track legal fireworks, permits and sales.

Senate Bill 2185 requires the auditor of fireworks for each county fire department to submit to the Legislature an annual report detailing inventory, recordkeeping, and sales of fireworks to license or permit holders.

”I think the data collection is the step one. I think step two, we’re going to have to get serious about enforcement. That’s been the biggest choke point, both in terms of fireworks that are coming into the state illegally, in terms of the distribution of the fireworks, and then finally with the people who are setting off the fireworks,” added Chang.

There are also a number of agencies working to keep those illegal fireworks out of the state in the first place, including the United States Coast Guard.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Vivian Gonzalez is a container inspector for the Coast Guard. She says there are about 75 inspectors that work with shipping companies to check cargo containers in ports across the islands.

Earlier this year, inspectors seized nearly 13,500 pounds of illegal fireworks with a street value of around $2.7 million.

However, with more than 1.5 million shipping containers that came through Hawaii ports in 2020 alone, checking every single one simply isn’t an option.

”So it would be kind of impossible for us to check them all, but we do rely heavily on other agencies like Customs and Boarder Patrol and the Department of Agriculture — they also do inspections. We have a random method to take containers and inspect them and we have a total number of containers we have to do each year,” said Gonzalez.

Data from the Hawaii Department of Transportation shows that around 80% of what we use in Hawaii is imported and around 96% of that comes through the state’s port system.

HPD says the best way to report illegal fireworks is by calling 911 and that callers should try to take pictures and provide any other evidence to officers.

As for consequences to the possession of illegal fireworks, anyone with less than 25 pounds of illegal fireworks could face up to a $2,000 fine and/or a year in prison.

Anyone found with over 25 pounds of illegal fireworks or are caught distributing could face up to five years in prison and/or a fine up to $10,000.

Adults can be held liable for minors in possession of illegal fireworks.

Additionally, HPD officials said in a news conference Thursday that they’ve noticed an uptick in the “extremely dangerous” behavior of pulling over on the shoulder of the freeway to watch the fireworks.

HPD said this is “probably one of the worst places to watch the fireworks,” and that if you do, you could be cited, towed, or arrested depending on the severity of the situation.

As for legal firecracker permits on Oahu, officials say about 13,000 have been sold this year. Last year, that figure was a lot higher — at more than 20,000.

To ensure the community can continue celebrating the start of the new year with fireworks and avoid the risks associated with its use, officials remind the public to:

  • Supervise children using fireworks
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and safety tips provided
  • Use common sense
  • Do not partake in the possession or distribution of illegal fireworks
  • Watch out for each other’s safety especially on the roads and when operating heavy machinery.