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News article highlights a July 4th safety & ethical dilemma in the Nation’s Capital

What to do when a decades old illegal neighborhood fireworks display is publicly outed

The video above is from a 2011 display in the same block and at the same time as the annual James family fireworks show. The description doesn’t credit the people putting on the display, but makes the point there isn’t a cop in sight.

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It’s Independence Day 2018. You’re a top public safety official in our Nation’s Capital. Yesterday, a local news website posted a detailed feature on a large annual neighborhood fireworks display that has been going on in various forms since 1984. It’s a very popular display with scores of people coming out to watch. It usually begins as the official public display on the National Mall ends. For about a decade, the display has included heavier fireworks that definitely aren’t legal in the District of Columbia. Despite this, the man who runs the display tells the reporter that police and fire officials have been well aware of what he does but ignore it. It’s now less than 12 hours away from today’s illegal display what do you do as a top DC public safety official now that this has been exposed in the news media?

Read DCist article by Rachel Sadon

This is not some hypothetical question on a fire or police department promotional exam. This is the safety and ethical dilemma facing the DC Fire & EMS Department and the Metropolitan Police Department today. The website DCist featured the annual illegal fireworks display in the 3500 block of 13th Street NW in Columbia Heights in an article by Rachel Sadon posted yesterday. It went into great detail about all the work Mack James and his family do every year to put on this show.

Mack James used to be an elected DC official, serving as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner. According to James, he spends about $1500 on the display with three quarters of the money from donations by those who attended the year before. James told reporter Sadon safety is important:

Still, he says he takes great care to set the firecrackers off safely—making sure that the firecrackers are level and not going to arc in unexpected directions, clearing the area so no one comes within a few hundred feet, blocking off several parking spots, and keeping a hose on standby. James says they’ve never had any safety incidents.

Fireworks are sold in DC, but only those items that don’t explode or move after being ignited. About a decade ago, former Fire Chief Dennis Rubin tried to put an end to the sale of even those more tame fireworks. Rubin ran smack into the significant fireworks lobby in the City and his proposal went nowhere. Mack James claims that despite the illegality of his fireworks, police and fire officials have not tried to shut him down:

“They drive by now and watch themselves and keep going … I think so many people now have ’em throughout the city,” he says. “If I was the only one, they could come and shut me down and say you can’t do it or whatever. But you gotta stop all these other people.”

According to Rachel Sadon, Mack James doesn’t see an end in sight for this popular Columbia Heights event:

“I don’t know if I can stop now. I don’t think they’re going to allow me to stop,” he says. “They’d be really disappointed. As long as the donations keep coming, I’ll continue to do it.”

The one thing that isn’t in Rachel Sadon’s article is any reaction from DC officials. No questions for the DC Fire & EMS Department or the Metropolitan Police Department.

Now that a large and illegal fireworks display is outed so publicly will public safety officials in the District of Columbia continue to ignore it exists? We are just hours away from finding out.

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