PyroTechnician: Igniting Fireworks for a Living

You are crowded on a blanket with your family and friends on a muggy summer night. The smell of cotton candy, insect repellent, and fried food lingers in the air; creating an unpleasant aroma that makes you forget about the heavenly potato salad, baked beans, and strawberry shortcake you just had at the family cookout. Children are either throwing footballs which narrowly miss your head, running through the crowd and knocking over countless beverages, or screaming and crying because their parents are making them sit on the blanket and not indulge in the chaotic activities or fat and sugar-laden food enjoyed by other youth.

You are growing impatient, and are just ready to pack it up and head home when unexpectedly you hear a loud explosion. The sky turns fifteen different shades of red. The audience is dead silent. Everyone returns to their blanket and directs their attention to the clouds of smoke dissipating in the night sky. A few seconds later, the audience rises to its feet and begins singing along to patriotic melodies and joining in the various choruses of “oohs” and “aahs” as beautiful fireworks erupt before your eyes and bring feelings of love and peace to a once frenzied atmosphere. It is the Fourth of July.

As you enjoy this annual display of fireworks, do you ever stop to think about how the show comes to be? Do you ever wonder who decides which fireworks to use and in which order, who ignites the fuses, or who plans the music and other types of entertainment that often accompany the show? The individuals responsible for developing and executing these fireworks displays are known as PYROTECHNICIANS.

The term “PYROTECHNICIAN” is derived from the Greek words “pyro” and “techne,” which mean “fire and heat” and “artist,” respectively. PYROTECHNICIANS are people who make fireworks, pyrotechnic special effects (SPFX), and/or explosive special effects (SEFX).

Most PYROTECHNICIANS work in outdoor arenas executing fireworks display shows for festivals, fairs, holidays, and other celebrations. Over 70% of all pyrotechnics shows occur outside during Labor Day, Memorial Day, New Year’s Eve, and the Fourth of July. Many PYROTECHNICIANS are part-time, seasonal employees who work for small companies are who are self-employed.

Big-scale shows, such as those that occur nightly at Disney World or at Independence Day celebrations in the nation’s capital, are often produced by large pyrotechnics companies. These large companies usually have technicians that perform other types of special effects such as laser shows and who can also perform indoor pyrotechnics. Indoor pyrotechnic shows are featured in rock concerts and some theatre presentations.

PYROTECHNICIANS do not just ignite fireworks. They have to lay out intricate electrical networks (if fireworks are not manually lit), which can involve digging trenches in which they place mortar rounds, carrying heavy sandbags to provide necessary fortification, and in some cases, program computers to execute the ignition system of the electrical network. They also have to incorporate music and the element of timing into their shows.

Pyrotechnics work can be very dangerous, but it can also be very rewarding when you see the smile on the face of a child and hear the crowd go wild during the grand finale.

PYROTECHNICIANS must first and foremost have the ability to recognize the power of a firework or other explosive device. They must realize the destructive nature of such materials and fully understand how to protect themselves and crowd members during a show. They should have the ability to perform basic first-aid procedures and know how to summon appropriate help in an emergency.

PYROTECHNICIANS must be able to maintain an excellent level of concentration. They must pay close attention during a show; they have to execute each step within a very specific time frame for aesthetic and safety reasons.

Technicians must be also able to communicate well with others. Each person on a pyrotechnics team has an important role. They have to perform a certain task at a certain time, and then provide a cue to the person responsible for the following task. If there is any break in the communication link, the artistic effects of the show may suffer and there could be safety hazards as well.

It takes a special combination of skills to execute a full-blown pyrotechnics show. PYROTECHNICIANS must have an artistic sense; they must be able to determine what color, size, or shape of a firework must be used in order to create a certain mood or effect. They must be able to set a proper order to the fireworks that will be let off, so that colors, sounds, and other effects blend in a manner that is appealing to the ear and eye. Often times, pyrotechnics shows are set to music. For this reason, PYROTECHNICIANS must be able to interpret the moods in various music and match them with fireworks that mirror those moods. Being able to precision-time a pyrotechnics show is an incredibly difficult task that takes an extraordinary amount of skill.

There is no formal education requirement for PYROTECHNICIANS. However, many states do require that PYROTECHNICIANS hold a special pyrotechnics or explosives license. The requirements for obtaining such licenses vary greatly from state to state. Most states that do mandate that technicians hold a license require the individual to pass a written exam, participate in personal and crowd safety training courses, complete an internship or assistantship with a certified PYROTECHNICIAN, and pay a monetary fee. Licenses must often be renewed on an annual basis.

States that do not require certification may have other laws that prevent inexperienced individuals from manufacturing or igniting certain types of explosives. For instance, several states force those wanting to use pyrotechnics, or fireworks, to obtain special permits before deploying the devices. These permits are often costly and may specify that the fireworks be used in certain locations, at certain times, and in the company of certain others.

If you are interested in becoming a PYROTECHNICIAN consider taking courses in Physics, Chemistry, Manufacturing, Theatre, Art, and Music. You can pick up basic courses in most of these subjects at technical and community colleges. It is also a good idea to take a First Aid or Basic Health and Safety course too, just in case of an accident.

A large majority of PYROTECHNICIANS are seasonal or part-time employees. Therefore, it is hard for them to make a living working only in the pyrotechnics field. Seasonal and/or part-time employees usually are paid by the hour, often not much more than minimum wage. Others may be paid a flat fee for an event. For those PYROTECHNICIANS who only arrange outdoor fireworks displays, the number of events that they can do in a year is very limited. Very rarely are these technicians able to find work for over ten events in a calendar year.

PYROTECHNICIANS who work as part of a team or for large companies specializing in pyrotechnics normally earn more than “freelance” technicians. This type of PYROTECHNICIAN is also more likely to have full-time employment and be able to perform indoor displays. This means that they will earn significantly more money than outdoor, seasonal technicians. In some cases, they may even be salaried.

There are no concrete statistics available on the job outlook for PYROTECHNICIANS However,many people in the industry believe that there will be a slight increase in demand for pyrotechnics services in the upcoming years. Many U.S. states will be celebrating their bicentennials in next fifteen years, which will most definitely involve large fireworks displays. The increasing presence of fireworks shows at sporting events, amusement parks, and rock concerts will provide a need for more PYROTECHNICIANS Even though the demand is expected to increase, it is still important to realize that full-time, salaried positions in pyrotechnics will continue to be hard to come by.

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