Fireworks on the Fourth of July are as American as apple pie. But get ready for a change. This year, many of us might have to watch the kids down the block set off their own cherry bombs and bottle rockets.
Towns and cities across the country from Austin, Texas, to Euclid, Ohio, are canceling their pyrotechnics and "going dark," as they say on Broadway. This move will bring tears to children and would-be children such as myself, who brave rowdy crowds, dark, potholed fields and mosquito bites in exchange for the ear-splitting and eye-dazzling fun.
Other municipalities are scaling back their shows, turning what was once a 20-minute display into 10 minutes and summoning up several choruses of "God Bless America" to fill in the gap.
No fault of insurers
It's not our fault, says Eric Treend (pronounced trend) vice president of Britton-Gallagher & Associates, which is the broker for more than half of the pyrotechnic industry's insurance needs and handles 10,000 requests each July 4. Treend services the world-famous Grucci family, which started shooting off fireworks in southern Italy as early as 1850.
Treend says that insurance costs for fireworks displays have dropped like Roman candles over the past five years, sometimes as much as 30 percent at a clip, although they have recently stabilized. This is due in part to a price war in the property-casualty insurance industry, but increased safety is also a factor.
Show me the money
From what I've been told, the biggest damper on these displays is, no surprise, the lack of tax dollars to pay for them. Premier Pyrotechnics of Richland, Mo., whose ads feature a man inside a fireworks mortar, pegs the average cost at about $1,000 a minute, or $20,000 for an average 20-minute show.
For cash-strapped small towns, that's a lot of money, particularly when you add in the cost of police protection. It also pinches the wallets of bigger towns like Stockton, Calif., which just declared bankruptcy. Faced with a $756,000 tab for one night of sound and fury, Chicago shut down its city-run fireworks, leaving it to private vendors.
Treend also says that weather-related issues are a major factor. Fires are raging out of control in drought-stricken Colorado, and the last thing people there need is more sparks to set off the already dry kindling. Meanwhile, rain-soaked Florida, drenched by Tropical Storm Debby, isn't likely to have much of a celebration either.
Safest form of mayhem
Shooting off fireworks is arguably the safest form of mayhem you can find. "The industry has done a tremendous job," says Treend, who went to China last year -- where fireworks started and where a huge percentage of them are still made - to inspect these manufacturers.
We all know that those who've had too much to drink will continue to blow their fingers off by holding cherry bombs a bit too long, but according to the National Council on Fireworks Safety, only 7,000 fireworks-related injuries were reported in hospital emergencies rooms on July 4, 2008, the last year these figures were available. If this sounds like a lot, consider that it's nearly 3,000 less than in 2007.
But many communities, like mine, aren't about to give up on their celebrations. We like the smell of gunpowder on a summer's evening. In fact, where I live in New Jersey we're doubling down and holding a "Freedom Festival" the weekend before the Fourth.
And when you think about it, it makes sense -- and dollars. People who attend spend money which ultimately turns into tax revenue. And in this fourth year of a national economic downturn, everyone could use a little fun and fireworks. I know I can.