Three things to know about shooting off fireworks in Florida

As with a lot of things in Florida, the Sunshine State’s playbook has some quirks.
Samantha Roberts, of Hudson, holds up Ryan Roberts as they watch fireworks light the sky during a firework show near the St. Pete Pier in 2022.
Samantha Roberts, of Hudson, holds up Ryan Roberts as they watch fireworks light the sky during a firework show near the St. Pete Pier in 2022. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published June 29|Updated June 30

In most states, if you want good fireworks, you can probably find a way to get them.

In some places, you have to know a guy. In others, tents pop up in parking lots and along the side of the highway right before certain holidays.

And as with other things in Florida, the rules around buying and setting off fireworks have their own distinctive flair.

Yes, fireworks tents have been set up on major roadways for weeks now. But you have to know some magic words in order to buy the kind that explode in the sky. Otherwise you’re stuck with the same offerings found at the grocery store that pop or shoot sparks from the ground, and nobody’s coming back to your party next year.

Whether you’re new to the state, or just need a reminder, here are three things you should know before you engage in the great American tradition of blowing stuff up for Independence Day:

They’re for the birds

The easiest way to get grown-up fireworks in Florida is to claim you’re buying them for “agricultural use.” Head to a store or stop at one of the tents. Scoop up some Roman candles and bottle rockets. Then, tell the cashier you need them to scare birds away from your crops. They’ll give you a form to sign that says as much. And you’re on your way.

Technically, you are also allowed to use them to light up railroads, although this is a slightly harder case to make, unless you have your own personal train track you need to illuminate.

The bird exemption dates back to 1941, when the sale of fireworks was made illegal in the state. Florida is the only state that has such a loophole.

Bird advocates in Clearwater have recently brought attention to the eagles nesting near the BayCare Ballpark, home to minor league baseball’s Threshers, where they have semi-regular firework displays.

Similarly, Audubon Florida has been raising concerns about beach-nesting birds getting literally scared to death by firework sounds on the Fourth of July.

“We work closely with local governments to make sure that public displays are safe for birds,” said Holly Short, the shorebird program manager for Audubon Florida. “So it’s best to go to those. But if you really want to set off your own on the beach, check with the local government to see where the nesting sites are first.”

Some of this years’ public fireworks displays are “Boom by the Bay” hosted by the city of Tampa on Saturday at the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park and “The Fourth” hosted the city of St. Petersburg on July 4 at the St. Pete Pier.

They’re legal 3 days each year

In 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law making it legal for people over the age of 18 to set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and Independence Day. The bill originally proposed adding Memorial Day to the list, but that was dropped out of concern about wildfire risk during the dry season.

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association’s directory of state requirements, “firework holidays” are something that makes Florida unique.

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A handful of states have permitted “selling periods,” ranges of days before major holidays where restrictions for firework sales change or loosen. Washington state has “discharge periods,” giving residents about a week before July 4 and a few hours during the night of New Year’s to use them. Hawaii also has designated use periods, allowing residents to use specific fireworks on holidays (such as the Chinese New Year) and allows for residents to apply for permits for “cultural use” outside of those periods.

But nowhere else has fireworks holidays like Florida, according to the Pyrotechnics Association.

On the three holidays, you can use fireworks that explode in the sky, which are otherwise illegal, unless, of course, when you’re protecting your crops. They are still subject to size limitations, as your retailer should (maybe) be able to explain to you.

The same risk still applies

The one thing that isn’t unique about fireworks in Florida is the risk they pose for everyone involved. They are, after all, commercially available explosives.

Last year, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report saying fireworks related death has been climbing, increasing 25% from 2006 to 2021. Along with potential user injury, firework sounds can be incredibly distressing to household pets.

So, Floridians still need to be careful with fireworks.

The Florida Department of Health compiled a list of safety guidelines in 2014. They say to never keep fireworks in pockets and to wear goggles or glasses while setting them off. Hillsborough County added a few extra to its own list in a post from 2018. Importantly, that list says to never discharge firearms when using fireworks.

The Humane Society of Tampa Bay also has a list of tips for helping dogs deal with the noise. In short, check with your vet, leave your dog indoors while you go use or see fireworks and make sure they have a tag or collar if they get scared from the noises and escape.

Nathan Kott, the operations manager at Galaxy Fireworks, a statewide retailer based in Tampa, suggested adhering to all of the above and being mindful of the individual instructions for each product used. He also said not to mix fireworks and alcohol.

“Drinking alcohol correlates with the Fourth of July,” Kott said. “But it’s almost like having a designated driver. Things can happen, and people can fall, so it’s always safer to have someone who hasn’t been drinking set them off.”