AYER – The annual 4th of July fireworks display at Pirrone Park has been a local tradition for decades and has drawn as many as 10,000 people to this small New England town of just 9 ½ square miles and about 8,000 people.
But despite its popularity and in part because of it, the big event is off this year.
The Board of Selectmen voted at their Oct. 15 meeting to cancel the fireworks, citing serious public safety concerns, mostly logistical problems that have been difficult if not impossible to solve.
That decision was the hot topic that drew about 50 people to a public meeting held at Ayer Shirley High School Tuesday night.
It wasn’t an easy call, according to Town Manager Robert Pontbriand, and alternatives were considered first. “Nobody woke up one day and decided this,” he said. “It’s a process.”
With a line-up of town officials on stage, Pontbriand sketched out the timeline that led up to the vote.
The matter was hashed out over a series of public safety meetings that began in July, 2019 and culminated last month. The upshot was that the police and fire chiefs recommended canceling the fireworks and the selectmen subsequently voted in favor of the measure.
The issues they raised are not new, Pontbriand said and in fact have come up every year.
“There have been challenges…but our top notch public safety personnel made it work,” Pontbriand said.
But after the last fireworks event on July 6, 2019, the police and fire chiefs came to him with “concerns,” Pontbriand said and the “internal” meetings began, culminating with the recommendation to end it. Everyone at the table agreed. “We cannot continue to host fireworks at Pirrone Park…” he said, despite the importance of the event to so many people.”
Fire Chief Robert Pedrazzi laid out pros and cons of the venue from a fire risk perspective.
For starters, there’s the 840-foot “clear circle” necessary to set off fireworks. As it happens, the pond behind the park provides a “natural barrier” that cuts the size of that space down considerably, he said, and with the water forming one segment of the protective circle, it’s was a relatively simple matter to secure the rest of the area with snow fencing.
But if the set-up sounds ideal, it’s anything but, given the size of the crowd, which continues to grow, Pontbriand said.
And this would likely have been a banner year, since July 4th falls on a Saturday.
Police Chief William Murray said the weekend date makes staffing the event even tougher. One of his major worries has been securing the entrance point to the park, he said. “We’ve narrowed it, cordoned off Pond street to vehicles, but pedestrian traffic pours in “in droves” and police can’t cover all the barricades they’ve set up to keep vehicles out. People move them, he said.
If there were an emergency situation, there could be a “stampede” for the entrance, which is a bottleneck.
“Flight or fight” instincts would take over, he said.
Staffing is also at issue, among other things and it would be almost impossible to set up check points. “It’s come up every year,” he said.
With every police officer on duty that day, both he and Pedrazzi said they must ensure that the rest of the town is covered while the event is in progress, which is another challenge.
“Ideally, we’d need 11 more officers,” he said.
Which brings up cost, but both he and Pontbriand said that’s not at issue and never has been.
“Cost is not a consideration here,” Pontbriand said. “The town has been fully supportive and we appreciate that.”
Alternative locations were discussed, including Devens or the high school’s lower fields. The latter location wouldn’t work because the buffer zone to set off fireworks would overlap roadways and Washington Street is the main route to the hospital.
As for Devens, which was the site of spectacular fireworks events during Fort Devens days, Pontbriand said he’d approached at least two MassDevelopment directors, neither of whom favored the idea.
“MassDevelopment isn’t interested,” he said.
Someone suggested Shirley playing fields but apparently that option has also been explored and couldn’t be worked out.
Which brings the issue back to where it started. There’s no safe place big enough in town to hold the fireworks.
During public input, David Bodurtha asked why the selectmen hadn’t called the meeting before, not after the decision was made. “It’s a major event,” he said and people should have had a chance to weigh in and to “get involved,” he said. “There may be alternatives.” Given that it’s only one day a year, he said it should be up to the people to decide.
Selectmen Chairman Scott Houde agreed that the decision-making process might have been more open. “I kind of kick myself for that,” he said. But when it came to signing up volunteers, he also noted how many vacancies there are on town boards, including the 4th of July Committee.
As more people weighed in, shifting the focus, Pedrazzi spoke up. “You’re all losing the point,” he said. While there’s never been a major incident at the park during the fireworks, there could be, and it could get ugly.
The gist of it all was that security and public safety issues come first, not matter what.