Behind-the-scenes look at major fireworks shows
Jun 18, 2018 12h02
By Travis Barton
Months of work goes into creating a memorable fireworks display.
By Lana Medina | [email protected]
The telltale BOOM goes off, followed by several more bursts, and then a series of fireworks flash into the sky. Every 4th and 24th of July, crowds come from far and wide to witness one of dozens of fireworks shows that light up the Salt Lake Valley.
Behind the scenes, it’s a very different picture. “I think of it as painting a canvas,” said Lantis Fireworks salesman and licensed Utah pyrotechnician Jeffery Ott. “And I have the sky to paint on.”
Lantis Fireworks produces some of the major fireworks productions in the Salt Lake Valley, including the popular Salt Lake City and Sandy City fireworks shows. Each of those 15–20 minute fireworks displays take hours of work to organize the performance, set up fireworks connections, coordinate with local fire marshals and ensure safety.
One of the most prominent shows in the Salt Lake Valley is the one where hundreds of fireworks shoot off the roof of the Sandy City Hall every 4th of July.
Months beforehand, Lantis Fireworks coordinates with Sandy City officials to decide how long the show will be, how close viewers can get to Sandy City Hall and still be safe and what music will help time out the display. In the background of almost every fireworks show are carefully timed pieces of music stitched together, to which the fireworks are choreographed to match tempo.
“When you’re playing the Star Spangled Banner, you’re not shooting pow pow pow, you’re shooting one shell, then another,” Ott explained. “You want your shells in the air to match the music. The music really dictates what you see.”
This year, it won’t just be music. Sandy City is partnering with FM radio station Z104 to broadcast the music, along with recordings of service members’ wives talking about them coming home.
“We try not to make it just about things exploding. The ending has always been spectacular — we don’t expect anything less this year,” said Mearle Marsh, community events director for Sandy City.
Marsh says this is the second year Sandy City will have fireworks discharged from the roof of the Sandy City Hall.
“It’s a challenging location but it makes for a really beautiful setting for the fireworks,” he said.
Lantis Fireworks and Sandy City officials have big plans for this year’s fireworks display. There’s the “cake” fireworks: multi-shot aerial fireworks that make a rapid staccato burst of noise during the show. Then, in the Sandy City show, there’s the three-inch shells that light up the night sky with a big boom, then two combine to create the overall, bigger fireworks display. By using a mix of colors and matching several different types of shells to music, a pyrotechnician can create an amazing fireworks show for viewers.
This term may sound like a dangerous person with fire, but for fireworks, it’s the exact opposite.
“Think about a conductor conducting an orchestra — that’s what a pyro does; they’re part conductor and part magician,” Ott said.
Lantis Fireworks’ pyrotechnicians go through extensive training before they can even touch one of the production fireworks. According to the state of Utah regulations, pyrotechnicians — or pyros for short — are required to work on at least three fireworks shows and go through extensive safety training. Once these requirements are met, a potential pyrotechnician can then take a test to get a license that would allow them to legally shoot off production-quality fireworks.
“Production is a 1.3G fireworks classification. The stuff that your neighbors are doing, that’s consumer grade, that’s 1.4G. It’s measured on gram weight per item. Consumer is supposed to be safer, less gunpowder,” Ott explained, but cautioned that “all fireworks are explosives.”
And all that training is necessary. At every show, there are fire marshals, firefighters and other emergency experts on hand in case something goes wrong.
“We’re attempting to put explosives in the air in a safe manner,” Ott said.
Safety is the number one priority for Lantis Fireworks pyrotechnicians, Ott said.
“We take every possible safety precaution from the time they’re loaded onto the truck up until the point we shoot them, and even while we’re shooting them,” he said. “Because the truth of it is, if you’re lucky and something bad happens, you’ll lose a finger. If they don’t get lucky, they get dead. You have to think like a fire marshal. Safety is always your first priority.”
Ott remembers a few years ago during a Lantis production in the Salt Lake Valley, and there was a wind shift.
“When a shell goes off, it doesn’t just go up into the air; there’s often some fiery debris that comes out of the mortar tube along with the shell,” he said. “We had some fiery debris that blew over and two-thirds of the way through the show, it prematurely ignited part of the finale (fireworks). So some of that ‘boom boom boom’ started going off much sooner than it was supposed to.”
There are specific rules governing major production-style
fireworks displays. For every one-inch shell used in a fireworks show, viewers
have to be kept at a distance of 70 feet in radius from the firework discharge
This means at the Sandy City Hall, when Lantis Fireworks uses three-inch shells to light up the night sky, nobody except for the licensed pyrotechnicians and safety personnel can be within 210 feet in any direction from the roof of the Sandy City Hall where the fireworks are set off.
Local fire officials will be on hand at these major fireworks displays. Salt Lake City Fire spokeswoman Audra Sorenson said they prefer it when Utahns visit the fireworks shows instead of setting off their own fireworks, because it’s much more safe.
“Going to a fireworks display that’s sponsored by a city or company is ideal for us. They work hand-in-hand with the city to make sure the location, the display and conditions are ideal so that they’re discharged properly,” Sorenson said. “We can work hand-in-hand with those shows’ teams to make sure it’s a safe fireworks display.”
For a 20-minute show, it can take a team of pyrotechnicians 10–12 hours to set up the fuses, tubes, electronics and fireworks for the display.
“You have to wire in every shell by hand. Then if it’s choreographed, every shell has a specific place it has to be wired in,” Ott said.
But when it’s done right, you end up creating a lasting and memorable experience for everyone watching. From young children who’ve never seen a fireworks show, to the people who never miss a fireworks show.
“Our whole goal is the ooh, ahh, wow,” Ott said. “That two-three seconds of silence between the last shell going off and thunderous applause that often follows a show… is beautiful.”
If local residents are planning to set off their own fireworks, there’s a map showing restricted areas: https://slcfire.com/fireworks/
For the month of July, fireworks can legally be discharged July 2–5 and July 22–25.