Will it take a serious accident or fatality before our fireworks laws are obeyed?
Christmas, for Christians, is traditionally a time of peace while New Year is a time to reflect on the old year gone and welcome the new with celebration and resolutions to strive for improvement.
Why then, in Port Vila, for the second year running, has the entire holiday season been marred by the indiscriminate use of noisy fireworks, crackers and rockets not only in contravention of the laws governing such use, but to the detriment of normal life all over town and the surrounding villages and semi-rural areas?
What will it take for authorities who give permission and all those who sell and use fireworks recklessly and without due consideration for others and their property to simply comply with the law and normal moral behaviour? Injuries? A death? A major fire or blast? The sinking of a ship or boat? A plane crash?
The legislation governing the use of explosives within Vanuatu is not very long – three and a half pages including the title page is all the Explosives Act (Cap 6) stretches to. But it is adequate. Provided it is adhered to, there should be no reason residents should not be able to look forward to celebrating the entire festive season every year, just as they used to, both peacefully and with revelry in their appropriate times and places.
The Act defines explosives as “gunpowder, blasting powder, dynamite, nitro glycerine, gun cotton, fulminate of mercury and EVERY OTHER SUBSTANCE NOT SPECIFIED, USED WITH A VIEW TO PRODUCE AN EFFECT BY EXPLOSIONS, and includes detonators, fuse and every accessory composed of a detonating or inflammable substance used to produce explosions and INCLUDES CRACKERS AND ROCKETS”.
It says that importation of explosives must have the authorization of the Minister [of Internal Affairs] and that Application for import permits “SHALL SPECIFY THE PURPOSE FOR WHICH SUCH EXPLOSIVES ARE REQUIRED, THE NAMES OF THE PERSONS WHO ARE TO USE THEM, AND THE LOCALITIES WHERE THEY ARE TO BE USED”.
This is perfectly straightforward. Explosives of any kind are not something that should be in the hands of persons unknown. They are not only noisy when used inappropriately, but are dangerous – to people, animals, aircraft, boats, vehicles and the environment. They have the potential to be reconfigured into much larger explosives – bombs, mortars – just like those used in war zones and terror attacks all over the world. In fact people throughout Port Vila have compared the noise over the past three weeks to just that.
To prevent any misuse of explosives, before the Minister gives his permission to import them, various other authorities must give the application their stamp of approval. These are the Civil Aviation Authority, Police and, if the fireworks are to be used over the water, Ports and Harbours Department.
It is widely known that the fireworks sold and used this Festive Season are left over from a shipment that was imported improperly over a year ago. There was allegedly no specification of where, by whom and when that shipment was to be used, no consultation with the appropriate authorities – just the approval of the Minister of the Day. Rather than the shipment being confiscated, as one would normally expect would be the case, the crackers and rockets were allowed to be sold and used at that time, also causing problems with planes and noise. But that should not justify their continued sale and use a year later.
It is now apparent that the current Minister of Internal Affairs gave his blessing for the sale to and use of these fireworks by the general public for an unspecified period following December 17, 2010 without consultation with the Civil Aviation Authority and, given the dissatisfaction evident on the part of various police force officers who complained about the impossibility of policing the random use of fireworks, it is also questionable whether the police were consulted before the order was made.
A pontoon belonging to Irirki Island Resort was obviously used for the letting off fireworks in the harbour but Ports and Harbours permission was apparently not sought.
During the period between the importation of these crackers and the present, they have been continually available and stored at The Mall, Mega Mall, Sandrino Traverso’s workshop and other shops around town.
This too is in contravention of the Explosives Act which is very explicit that explosives should be stored in a magazine whose construction - door, locks and so on must comply with stringent conditions. It is unknown whether Traverso has such a magazine for the fireworks advertised on his brand new “Fireworks for Sale” sign but the shops certainly don’t.
Moreover, Section 11 of the Act says: “The storage of explosives in any shop or bulk store is ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN.
Section 12 (3) does make the small exception of “On special occasions such as fete days the storage of rockets and crackers in shops may be authorized for SHORT periods”, but one can hardly call over twelve months a “short period”.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs has advised that new legislation concerning fireworks is in the process of being drafted. The Prime Minister has also been reported as saying that the government will ban the use of fireworks until a proper mechanism can be put in place to effectively control the sale and distribution of these items early next year and proper legislations will be put in place.
But the public is asking why this should this be necessary? It is only since that particular shipment of fireworks was allowed that the situation has got out of control. So out of control that Civil Aviation has had to issue another Emergency Rule to stop their use before they caused a plane to crash.
Up until two years ago the existing law was adhered to and everyone got to look forward to and enjoy fireworks in controlled demonstrations on certain fetes at certain times. Independence night, New Year’s Eve and a few other worthy public events. They were not used for inconsequential private parties or for the whim of individuals who get a thrill out of keeping whole neighbourhoods awake night after night and making life generally unpleasant for people and pets..
Why, the public asks, can the Government not just stop the sale of the fireworks at the points of sale? If they must be sold make it compulsory that the purchaser produce a valid permit signed by CAAV, the Police Commissioner and the Minister of Internal Affairs?
Public opinion is strong on this issue. There are mutterings of class actions and mass complaints to those tasked with protecting everyone’s right to peaceful enjoyment of life by ensuring that everyone obeys the law. The Government would be wise to listen and if it really sees the need for change, to make sure there is adequate public consultation before any new legislation is finalized.
As we finalise our article we understand a sign has appeared in the window of the Mall Centreville clarifying that fireworks are "For Authorised Sale Only" and that "Authorisation and approval can be obtained within the Ministry of Internal Affairs".
The whole sign reads:
"Authorised Sale Only
For parties, celebrations and important function usage only.
Authorisation and approval can be obtained within the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
For enquiries please contact the manager in charge"