Creating a Professional Fireworks Show

It's time for a celebration and what better way to celebrate a big event like the 4th of July, a grand opening to some new hotel, or a summer time celebration at an amusement park than with an awesome Fireworks show!We have all attended countless firework shows in our lifetimes and we sit down with our friends and family and enjoy the beautiful show of fireworks for about 20-30 mins and then we leave. How wonderful! But have you ever wondered what goes into putting one of those shows together and the many hours that are needed to put it all together?

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I'm going to show you what goes in to creating a firework show and all the hard work that goes into making it a successful show, from the unloading of all the equipment from a truck to the final cleanup.Depending on the size of the show, it could require a one-day setup or a five-day or more set up. Let's talk about a one-day setup show. This would typically be a show that you might see at your local college or professional baseball game.

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The day starts out by someone getting up real early and picking up a rental truck from the local firework company that we are contracted with. The truck is already filled up with everything we need for the show including racks, cleats (wooden boards that we use to hammer the racks together), nails, wires, terminal boards, tinfoil (for covering exposed tubes), firing control board, and of course, the product (boxes of actual fireworks an cakes which are the multi-shot type fireworks that go off in succession). Also included is paperwork including a "blueprint" for how we are to set the show up. Each show is already pre-choreographed to music so we just take the blueprints and build the show.

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Once the truck arrives to the location, the rest of the crew, usually about 10 of us) are already there waiting to start work in the morning. Time to unload all the contents!

Unloading the truck.
Unloading the truck.

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We seperate all the racks and tubes:

Lots of tubes waiting to be set up.
Lots of tubes waiting to be set up.

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We store the boxes of fireworks in a safe place away from everyone:

Storing the fireworks in a safe place. Don't ever slide those boxes because static electricity could set them off!
Storing the fireworks in a safe place. Don't ever slide those boxes because static electricity could set them off!

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Some shows we have to build sand boxes and fill them with sand and place the tubes inside to secure them:

Putting sand boxes together and placing the tubes inside the boxes.
Putting sand boxes together and placing the tubes inside the boxes.

This is a finished sand box with tubes in place, sand filled, and packed tight.
This is a finished sand box with tubes in place, sand filled, and packed tight.

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For the larger sized fireworks, 8" and larger, we have to put the huge steel tubes into trash barrels and fill the barrels with sand to secure the tubes in place:

Larger 8" and 10" tubes are steel and needed to be placed into trash barrels and then packed with sand to hold them firnly in place.
Larger 8" and 10" tubes are steel and needed to be placed into trash barrels and then packed with sand to hold them firnly in place.

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We also have to hammer the racks together. The racks contain all the smaller tubes that we load up with fireworks later:

Nailing racks together.
Nailing racks together.

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Once we have all of our racks set up and in place, now it's time to lay out all the fireworks and start wiring everything up!

Peter Genovese wires up a cake.
Peter Genovese wires up a cake.

Peter Genovese connects wires to a control module.
Peter Genovese connects wires to a control module.

Peter Genovese wires up the big 8" and 10" rounds because Peter knows what he's doing and wants these big boys firing during the show without any problems. That's how confident Peter is with his wiring lol
Peter Genovese wires up the big 8" and 10" rounds because Peter knows what he's doing and wants these big boys firing during the show without any problems. That's how confident Peter is with his wiring lol

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Every rack has lots of tubes and each and every one of those tubes needs to be wired up to a control module:

Here's an example of a rack of 3" tubes that are wired to a control module.
Here's an example of a rack of 3" tubes that are wired to a control module.

A closer look at the numbering sequence on a control module.
A closer look at the numbering sequence on a control module.

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It's also time to start "dropping" the shells into the tubes and then wiring them to circuit boards as well. Here I am ready to drop a large 8" shell into the steel tube in a barrel:

Peter Genovese is about to lower an 8" shell into it's tube.
Peter Genovese is about to lower an 8" shell into it's tube.

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Here's some of the crew carefully dropping shells in various tubes. Every one of these shells is numbered and is wired to a corresponding number on a circuit board that you can see laying there on the edge of the sandbox on either side of it. Those circuit boards are then plugged into the main firing controller:

The crew is dropping the rounds and wiring them up to the electrical boards located on the edge of the sand boxes.
The crew is dropping the rounds and wiring them up to the electrical boards located on the edge of the sand boxes.

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Here I am about to drop a 10" shell into it's tube:

Peter Genovese is about to chamber a 10" aerial and wire it up.
Peter Genovese is about to chamber a 10" aerial and wire it up.

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Once we have all of the shells dropped....

A barge with all the fireworks dropped and ready to be foiled.

A barge with all the fireworks dropped and ready to be foiled.

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...it's now time to start foiling everything. We lay tinfoil over all of the open tubes so that we don't get sparks falling into the tubes and prematurely firing off other rounds that are not yet ready to be fired. We're almost done when we're at this stage:

A row of racks that are neatly foiled and ready for the show.
A row of racks that are neatly foiled and ready for the show.

Racks that are all foiled and ready for show time.
Racks that are all foiled and ready for show time.

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After foiling is complete, we now make sure we have all the wires in place from each circuit board. We lead all the leads to our firing control board and plug them in there.  Also, if we have cakes in our show, we have to wire each of those too, and wire them to the circuit boards to a corresponding number. Time to get the firing control boards out. Here's several different kinds, the first being one of the newest industry standard ones, the "Fire One" system:

This is a "Fire One" firing controller. It's one of the industry standard firing modules.
This is a "Fire One" firing controller. It's one of the industry standard firing modules.

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This is an older firing board:

This is an older firing board.
This is an older firing board.

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And this is a very old board where we just touch a metal pin to a contact on the board to complete the circuit and fire the round:

This is a very old firing board where you touch a metal pin to a contact point on the board to complete a circuit which then fires the firework out of the corresponding tube.
This is a very old firing board where you touch a metal pin to a contact point on the board to complete a circuit which then fires the firework out of the corresponding tube.

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We now have a show that's set up and ready to go! Hopefully we're finished by about 6pm or so and can plug everything in and do continuity tests. This will test the whole system and let us know if we have any loose connections on any and all of the fireworks that we have plugged in. There's ALWAYS something found that wasn't plugged in right or came loose somehow so the continuity test helps us finalize our connections. Once we do several continuity tests and it eventually results in a 100% continuity check, then we keep the area clear for the rest of the evening so that no one walks around and trips over a wire and disconnects things.

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Whether or not everything fires off the way we hope and expect is another story. Sometimes things are wired in such a way where one round will fire up and pull wire with it and dislodge some other wire of a round that hasn't been fired yet. You never know what might happen since it is so explosive in the pit there where everything is. We always strive for a 100% fired show where everything we wired has fired, but it is a rarity in the business. There's always at least several rounds out of hundreds that don't fire for various reasons. Though the crowd would never be aware of this in most cases unless it was a huge string of rounds that caused a dead spot in the show.

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Now it's time to wait for the crowds to fill the stadium!

Peter Genovese is checking out the crowd before showtime!
Peter Genovese is checking out the crowd before showtime!

The crowd is ready for a good show!
The crowd is ready for a good show!

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When we approach the last minutes before showtime, we do a final safety check amongs our crew. We all dress up in safety gear (goggles, hard hats, gloves, clothing that covers every part of our body so that no skin is explosed to keep us safe from sparks that may fall on us, and ear plugs) and carry our flashlights with us. One of the crew is chosen to shoot the show but I'll let you guys in on a funny thing about shooting shows off. As cool as you might think it would be to shoot a firework show off, and it IS, no one usually wants to do it!

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The reason for this is because the person who is shooting the show is the person who is staring at the firing control board and concentrating on shooting the show off so that it goes smoothly. This means that that person doesn't get to sit back and enjoy the show in front of him/her! So I've only ever shot off one show early on in my career and I don't ever really care to do so again. I love being able to be positioned somewhere around our setup and be on lookout for duds and keeping the crowd safe. And I also get to watch the show with the best seat in the house, very close to where the action is.

Front row seats to the firework shows are one of the perks to being on a fireworks crew.
Front row seats to the firework shows are one of the perks to being on a fireworks crew.

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During the show on a barge, this is what it looks like for the guys firing the show who are hudling behind a steel blast shield. It's wild and crazy times on a barge because we are so close to the fireworks. LOTS of sparks and smoke and soooo loud! Here's a fun video that I shot that shows what I'm talking about: http://youtu.be/v5Z-t8aGEZs. It's definitely very exciting:

One guy firing and two others helping with flashlights and radio. Craziness!
One guy firing and two others helping with flashlights and radio. Craziness!

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After a show is done, everyone cheers (which is what is so cool for me to hear) and makes us all feel very good about the hard work we did all day or over the course of days or even a week, depending on how large the show is. We don't get paid a lot to do this so this type of work is definitely not for the money and won't make you rich. We do it because we have a passion for the art of Fireworks and we are all very patriotic and LOVE hearing the crowd cheer on the fireworks as they watch the show and as they applause the end of a show. That's what makes it so worth it to me, to know that I had a hand in making thousands upon thousands of people happy for one night. It's awesome 🙂

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Now, one thing most people don't realize is that after you are all leaving the area and driving home, our jobs are not done yet. We have to first make sure the area is safe to go into and then we begin our teardown exercise which consists of taking down everything we spent all day on putting up. We throw away as much trash as possible, we break down all the racks, safely dispose of all the spent fireworks, and load EVERYTHING back into the truck. So we aren't usually done with our night until about midnight or 1am at which point we finally get to go home.

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It's been a long day for all of us on the crew by the time we get home but it's all been worth it and that's why we keep coming back for more every year 🙂

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Much thanks to Russ Borne, my Pyrotechnician good friend who gave me the opportunity to get into this business many years ago and whom I've worked with on every show I've ever done! Also thanks to Zee Borne, Tony Zuniga, Shaun Treanor, Joann Cross, Sandra Van Hook, Mike King, Robert Naylor (let me know who else I'm missing, guys!) and those who aren't with us anymore who I've had the great pleasure working with over the years.

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