AS IF THE pandemic and lockdown weren’t enough, Savannah had to deal with another obnoxious issue over the summer: Unprecedented fireworks.
From neighborhood to neighborhood, rich or poor, the problem was worse than ever, and went on for days, even weeks, leading up to and after July 4.
Unfortunately, most all of it was completely legal, due to the state of Georgia’s extremely permissive fireworks laws.
“People were calling me nonstop, asking what can we do about it?” says Alderwoman Linda Wilder Bryan. “Whether about their children with autism, the elderly, pets. And people with PTSD -- what about the veterans that everybody says they care so much about?”
Alderman Nick Palumbo was also besieged with calls, as was nearly every Council member.
“We all got calls almost all night, every night. People are very upset, about the effect on pets, the elderly, people trying to get their young children to sleep and they couldn’t,” he says.
For decades, fireworks were illegal in Georgia, though many people used them anyway.
Taking a trip over the state line into South Carolina to stock up on fireworks, where they were legally sold, was a rite of passage for generations of Savannahians.
But in 2015, the Georgia legislature not only made fireworks sales legal, but allowed them to be set off any day of the year until midnight – and up to 1 a.m. New Year’s Eve into New Year’s Day.
With the pandemic causing the cancelation of almost every municipal fireworks display this July 4 weekend, that led to a certain DIY spirit – and wall-to-wall explosions for hours on end in some areas as residents set off huge stores of fireworks.
“They're all in grocery stores now, they're just more accessible,” says Bryan. “And now people are home all day -- this pandemic has changed a lot of things.”
Now, Bryan and Palumbo are spearheading a move to curb the noise as best they can.
While they can’t change state law, they can address much of the fireworks issue through changes to the City’s noise ordinance.
In 2018, after pressure from local governments, the state legislature allowed individual cities and counties to enact restrictions on fireworks through their noise ordinances.
“Cities have had this ability for a few years,” says Palumbo. “In fact when you ask someone at the state level about it, the first thing they ask is, have you tried addressing it through your noise ordinance?”
Indeed, the relevant law specifically underlines the portion allowing local governments to address fireworks on their own.
In order to figure out exactly how to amend Savannah’s noise ordinance, Bryan and Palumbo decided to do some research into just how loud fireworks can get.
“We decided to do some tests, on our own time, with our own money,” says Bryan. “A few people complained and said we should spend that time on something more important, like crime. But we're focused on a lot of things! And we have to listen to the voice of the people. This might not be a priority for some people, but for others it's a serious issue.”
So a week ago, Bryan and Palumbo gathered with some City staff at the City’s Fire Training facility to run some tests.
Palumbo says typical decibel levels were between 90 and 110 decibels.
“The big issue is with the mortar-style fireworks. They're by far the loudest, and they cause by far the most injuries,” Palumbo says.
Some of the mortar fireworks, he says, "measure 100 or 110 decibels. That's as loud as the train horn going through town that so many people are upset about."
Bryan and Palumbo found out that “the companies distribute the fireworks based on what's allowed locally. So if your allowed decibel level is say 80, they'll sell anything 79 or less in that area,” he says.
The backstory is that Savannah’s existing noise ordinance, dating from the 1970s, already needs a complete overhaul after being thrown out in court for being too restrictive.
For example, the existing ordinance had disallowed noise above 50 decibels from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., “which is about as loud as our conversation is right now,” Palumbo said during our phone conversation for this story.
A task force was created earlier this year to gather citizen input and help craft a new version. The new ordinance, when adopted, will likely contain some form of decibel restriction on fireworks use.
Meanwhile, the pair of Council members say they’ve had to fend off critics who say the fireworks issue is a distraction from more important issues.
But Bryan and Palumbo say it’s not only possible, but necessary, to focus on more than one issue at a time – and their constituents really want something done about fireworks.
“We talk a lot about having the freedom to do things in this country, but one thing that's not mentioned much is the freedom from,” says Palumbo. “These types of fireworks negatively impact quality of life everywhere they're set off.”