Fort Worth, TX

Fire department refuses to enforce city ordinance

Southside Matt
Fort Worth Fire Department Engine 42 on a call for an uncontrolled burn, July 7, 2022Photo bySouthside Matt

With almost a million citizens residing in Fort Worth, holiday celebrations such as the Fourth of July Weekend are big events. Through the city’s history, official fireworks shows are held generally each year along the Trinity River flowing just north of Downtown. When held on weekends, as was the case in 2022, the celebration is even bigger with sponsors of the official show partnering with the nearby military base – formerly Carswell Air Force Base, now Naval Air Station Fort Worth/Carswell Joint Reserve Base – to have a military display or exhibition as an added bonus for the citizens. In 2022, this was illustrated by a flyover of F-16s from the 301st Fighter Squadron.

The fireworks that are used for these shows are transported, assembled, and discharged by professionals with appropriate training and licensing. This is required as fireworks are explosives considered on-par with grenades, dynamite, and other destructive explosives. Handled improperly, fireworks can become actual bombs causing damage, injuries, and fires.

Because of their dangerous nature, fireworks are strictly regulated at the state or local level. Cities such as Fort Worth have made fireworks within their city limits illegal as many homes, particularly in newer subdivisions, are located as close together as 20 feet. This proximity provides a substantial opportunity for fires starting at one address to spread quickly and engulf multiple homes before fire crews can arrive and extinguish the fire.
Fireworks damage poster as posted to FWFD Facebook page June 30, 2022Photo byFort Worth Fire Department

On June 30, 2022, Fort Worth Fire Department (FWFD) posted a meme to their Facebook page stating that fireworks cause 19,500 damaging fires each year in an effort to remind the public about this danger. To accentuate this point, they further posted on July 5 that the department responded to 203 grass fires in the city on July 4, “a 1,000% increase from the previous two years.” They also responded to 1,155 calls, “a 125% increase from the previous two years.”

Fires aren’t the only danger, either. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 2021 saw an estimated 1,500 emergency room visits due to mishandled fireworks and firecrackers nationwide, with another 1,100 due to so-called sparklers. Approximately 31 percent were for hand and finger injuries with 21 percent for head, face, and ear injuries. At least 18 people passed away as a result of using fireworks or firecrackers.

In addition to these dangers, there is what some would consider a nuisance factor – the general noise and light flashes created through the discharge of fireworks and firecrackers. Increasingly common in the U.S. are cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), with five of every 100 Americans suffering. Once known primarily as affecting soldiers returning home from battle, PTSD is recognized to be caused by a number of factors in today’s society with a variety of causes, effects, and symptoms even for those with seemingly mundane lives. Among these effects and symptoms is a fear of sudden, loud noises and bright flashes, both of which are side effects of fireworks and firecrackers. Such factors can cause a PTSD sufferer almost irreparable mental anguish, sometimes for weeks or months afterward. Symptoms include uncontrollable trembling and a sudden urge to “escape from the world.”

Similar to human PTSD sufferers, animals both domesticated and wild have negative reactions to the flashes and bangs. Upon seeing or hearing these, the animals are put into “fight or flight” mode, generally choosing the latter of these and seeking quiet and calm areas. This causes heartbreak for families whose pets flee their yards and homes seeking relief, but also provides hazards as the animals run amok in the streets. With many pets being small and dark-colored, their darting into roadways without regard for traffic can cause drivers to either not see them or see them at such a point in time that the driver’s only choice is to either hit the animal or to jerk into another lane or to a shoulder or ditch. Large animals such as horses or cattle are not immune to this, either, creating an even heftier hazard for traffic.

The City of Fort Worth adopted the International Fire Code (IFC) as its guide for Fire Code ordinances in 2011. The City Council, as a matter of fact, didn’t just use the IFC as a guide but codified it with amendments into the City Code. Within this is Section 13-2, Subsection 3301.1.3, drawn from IFC Section 5601.1.3, which states that, with exceptions, “(t)he possession, manufacture, storage, sale, handling and use of fireworks are prohibited.” An exception to this came from Texas House Bill 1813 which provides an affirmative defense to possession if, while “the defendant was operating or was a passenger in a motor vehicle that was being operated in a public place…the fireworks were not in the passenger area of the vehicle.”

To assist in the enforcement of this ordinance, a hotline was created and a form for the city's website and app for citizens to use to report incidents. Citizens in the city have learned to use both of these and have found them to be an efficient way to make reports in the hopes that infractions will be handled and the ordinance enforced for safety and comfort.

The form for the city’s website and app was developed in-house by the city’s Information Technology department. Staff tallied 33.5 hours developing the form for its release in July 2019. At an estimated staffing cost of $1,409, the city had brought its illegal fireworks reporting into the 21st Century. This cost, though, only accounts for the staffing hours used in developing the form and does not include licenses for the software used, the cost of computer resources used, or the costs associated with the management of this form through the city’s website and app.
Announcement of the ability to report fireworks through the MyFW app as posted to the FWFD Facebook page June 29, 2022Photo byFort Worth Fire Department

A response received from the city’s Information Technology department indicated that, because this was developed “in-house” and is part of the city’s website, there are not additional costs with the implementation and hosting of the form online. This explanation, though, is analogous to stating that, because someone is already driving a particular route, there is no additional cost to having a new passenger that needs to be dropped off only a block or so from the normal route. Although the additional cost may be minimal, there is an additional cost.

This form, regardless of its cost, has been adopted by Fort Worth citizens. Over the July Fourth Weekend in 2022, Fort Worth Fire Department (FWFD) reported that they had received over 4,500 complaints through these methods and through police calltakers. Of the 4,596 reports received, more than 96 percent (4,433) were made through the form. The remaining were submitted through police calltakers or the hotline.

Leading up to the two largest fireworks events each year, July Fourth and New Year’s, both FWFD and Fort Worth Police Department (FWPD) use social media extensively to remind citizens of the ordinance and of how to report illegal fireworks and firecracker discharges. Even going so far as to use memes, they make eye-catching posts to generate interest and awareness.

Even though FWPD participates in the announcements regarding the ordinance and resources, callers to the department or to 9-1-1, which is operated by FWPD, are directed to contact FWFD, preferably through the app or website form, unless there are other law enforcement needs. Calls taken by FWPD are provided with an Incident Number, and the report is immediately closed as the caller has been directed to FWFD.

Duties of enforcement of this ordinance fall to the Fort Worth Bureau of Fire Prevention (BFP). Some find this assignment confusing as BFP has hours of Monday through Friday, 9:00am to 5:00pm. Even in Winter when sunset comes relatively-early, fireworks and firecrackers often are not discharged during these hours. Also, it is the understanding of many citizens that FWPD should be charged with enforcing city ordinances.

As evidenced by response comments on Facebook and Twitter posts by both FWPD and FWFD, through their respective accounts, citizens have become wary about the effectiveness of such reports. While many praise the availability of such a way to report suspected illegal fireworks and firecrackers, more lament the seeming futility of making such reports. A majority of citizens seem to believe that FWFD does not even investigate, much less take enforcement action, based on these reports.

In attempting to explore this dynamic further, Southside Matt submitted a Public Record Request to FWFD requesting a listing of the reports made regarding illegal fireworks and a similar listing of the responses to these reports. The response to our request, which came the very next business day, indicated that we needed to contact the department’s Public Information Officer (PIO) as gathering the records would likely require extensive research and be expansive in cost. So, we did this and received an Excel spreadsheet detailing the 4,596 reports made by citizens of illegal fireworks and firecracker discharges.

This process provided a bit of consternation, probably for both sides, as the spreadsheet provided had been, unbeknownst to us, filtered to only display specific information even though the spreadsheet actually included all of the reports made to FWFD. Our admitted lack of awareness led us to reach out to FWFD Chief Jim Davis, who provided the same spreadsheet in the same format. It was later that we realized the formatting and adjusted the spreadsheet to view the full listing. We sent an email to Chief Davis apologizing for our lack of awareness and acknowledging that we had received the information regarding the citizen reports.

Through our investigation of this, though, we were not provided with a listing of responses to the reports made by citizens. This led us to focus more on that aspect, so we began requesting the reports based on the Incident Numbers provided for those that had been processed as calls to FWPD or 9-1-1. We also began asking for any fire reports generated for incidents of the date and time and at the address of those listed without Incident Numbers.

Responses for those with Incident Numbers initially provided call reports that showed that FWPD was closing these immediately after advising the caller to reach out to FWFD. Eventually FWFD began providing the responses and stating that there were no records to be found based on the Incident Number. It was explained:

The incident numbers do not match (fire and PD use different numbering systems)…

Similarly, responses to the requests for documentation surrounding the incidents not assigned Incident Numbers stated that there were no records responsive to our requests. This indicates that no action was taken on these reports submitted by the citizens.

Not wanting to make an assumption that the reports fall upon deaf ears, Southside Matt then requested the training and process documents for handling reports of illegal fireworks and firecrackers through the online form. The response to this was a document “printed and placed on consoles for our dispatchers to follow when taking calls and entering complaints.” FWFD further responded, “We do not have any records regarding processing reports made through the website, portal or app.”

Numerous email requests to the FWFD PIO for clarification have gone without a response. Our initial request for this clarification did receive a response of “Let me do some research on this for you” on January 19. Follow-up emails have not received any response whatsoever.

The city has gone through the effort of creating an ordinance prohibiting “(t)he possession, manufacture, storage, sale, handling and use of fireworks are prohibited,” and has also created multiple mechanisms for reporting suspected violations of this ordinance. Despite these efforts to put on the appearance that action will be taken to protect the safety and comfort of citizens, it seems that FWFD has merely created the reporting mechanisms for the sole purpose of tabulating reports instead of for enforcement of the city ordinance. All efforts to prove otherwise have proven fruitless and been met by silence from the department.

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Hailing from the Great State of Texas, South Side Matt monitors government for compliance with the Constitutional values that founded the United States, and works to maintain liberty for all in that spirit. His articles focus on furthering this cause, but also occasionally go "off track" into lighter topics such as cooking, general life and others.

Fort Worth, TX

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