New, Theatre

Non-Technical Pyrotechnics

July 13, 2019

I’m currently a pyrotechnician on a big outdoors summer musical.  I happily admit that a large portion of my job is sitting around reading a book with an occasional “Pyro, go!” to keep things interesting, but when problems do pop up, I deal with them.  A large number of my problems happen during my preshow and so I have time to figure out how I want to solve my problem and do so without comment.

However, due to firing on cue, it’s really obvious when I have an unexpected problem and I don’t have the luxury of troubleshooting once I’ve missed my cue.  So occasionally something goes wrong and I panic a bit.  I’ve had an annoying intermittent problem lately and was chatting with some of the crew about it using “pyro terms”. About halfway through the conversation I realized it was likely that the crew had never had the opportunity to learn about this potentially dangerous facet of the show we were all working on.

For those performers, crew, and curious audience members looking to add some knowledge to their toolbag I present “Non-Technical Pyrotechnics”.


The Laws

Fireworks are explosives and so the government likes to keep track of them.  The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATFE) and Department of Transportation (DoT) both do some regulating on the federal level.  ATFE cares about storage and spells out magazine (where the fireworks are stored) requirements in its “Orange Book”.  Generally, magazines need to be kept clean, no metal is allowed in them, no smoking in magazines (ever!), and the area around the magazine should be mowed and/or leaves raked.

The Department of Transportation cares about transportation and packing.  There are some tricks here, but if professional-grade fireworks are traveling on a public road after having been sold, those fireworks are regulated by the DoT.  In general, the fireworks should be traveling in labeled boxes on a truck with orange diamond-shaped placards on it and the driver of the vehicle should have a commercial license with a hazardous materials endorsement.

Labeling required by the DoT- if you see one of these, fireworks are around!

That’s what’s happening on the federal level.  Unfortunately, professional-grade fireworks laws vary on the state level: North Dakota has nearly no laws at all while California is heavily regulated (as of July 2019).

States that fall more in the middle of the legislation spectrum tend to adopt a version of two of the National Fire Protection Association’s standards: NFPA 1123 and NFPA 1126.  NFPA 1123 focuses on big fireworks: the tilt-your-head-back, feel-the-thump-in-your-chest-as-your-dog-runs-from-the-room kind of fireworks.  NFPA 1126 looks after a multitude of smaller effects although a NFPA 160 focuses specifically on flame effects (a puff of flame is probably NFPA 1126, but a jet of flame (or more) is probably NFPA 160).

NFPA 1123 and 1126 are about 30 pages, combined, and tend to be common-sense laws to supplement and enforce a pyrotechnician’s experience.  NFPA 1123 has a section on barge shows: the deck of the ship should be kept clear, shooters should wear life vests with lights on them, and shooters should have a place to shelter during the show: either a structure on the boat or a temporary shelter as long as it is up to a certain standard.  For pyrotechnicians who don’t do barge shows often, these laws will help guide them in making safe decisions for their crew.

In states that have adopted NFPA 1123 and/or 1126, the pyrotechnicians should have a copy of these standards onsite.

To mention a few things relevant to those who work near, but not with, pyro: don’t smoke near fireworks, pyro should either be supervised or locked up, and if someone doesn’t need to be near the fireworks, they shouldn’t be.

Manufacturing Pyrotechnics

Pyrotechnics are handmade.  There may be parts of an effect that are made using machines, but all pyrotechnics are hand-assembled.  That may seem odd in today’s mass-manufactured world, but it’s because a stray spark from a machine could be catastrophic.  Firework shells (those big balls of light in the sky) are usually made in China and imported, although shells made in Japan are known for their high quality.  Smaller professional pyrotechnic effects are often made in the United States to save on importing costs, while consumer-level effects (think firework stands/tents) import from China.

The Operator

The operator is the lead pyrotechnician on a shoot- the one who is most likely to come over and introduce themselves to the person who bought the show.  The operator is the most important person on a fireworks shoot as “The operator shall have primary responsibility for safety.” (NPFA 1123 8.1.3).  The operator is your friend, and you can think of them as the safety “veto button”.  Everyone (including the operator and the crew) want to have a fun, uneventful, show but in states that have adopted NFPA 1123 or 1126, it is the operator’s legal responsibility to stop the show if an unsafe situation exists.

Operators usually have to be licensed in the state that they are shooting in.  Requirements vary here, but operators are usually over 21, must show proof that they have worked on a certain number of shows, and pass a written test.  In Missouri, potential operators must show proof that they’ve worked on three shows and take an open-book test; in California, potential operators must go through a multi-stage licensing process over a number of years involving five letters of recommendation, several tests, and a potential audit of a shooter’s log book.  So, you know, licensing requirements vary.

The Site

Pyrotechnicians are usually required to submit their shoot site map in advance to someone in order to obtain permits: the site map will show where the fireworks will be shot from, the fallout area, and where the spectators are expected to be (as well as a few other things).  The fallout area can be dangerous and, unfortunately, spectators enjoy trying to sneak into the uncrowded, open area, in order to watch the fireworks from a slightly closer spot.  It is the legal job of the pyrotechnicians to chase the uninitiated from the fallout area due to the possibility of them being hit by a falling effect/burning debris.

A site map for a concert from 2018

Setting up the Show

Most fireworks shows are going to be set up in the same general way: a firing system will send a signal to a module (an interchangeable electronic component) which the pyrotechnician has wired (to install an electric system) product (any pyrotechnic effect) into.  The firing system may be wired or wireless: a wired system has cables physically connecting the different modules while a wireless system depends on the firing system transmitting its signals and the modules receiving them.  The transmitter/receiver part means that a strong signal is highly important for wireless systems, and it’s worth it to note here that the signal strength is reduced when there are large numbers of wireless signals around (e.g. cell phones in a stadium).

A Cobra 18M Wireless Module- 18 cues can be wired into this module.
A FireOne Wired Module- 32 cues can be wired into this module.

Occasionally a show will be hand-fired, and so there will be no firing system or modules.  Instead, a couple pyrotechnicians will put on safety gear (eye protection, ear protection, head protection, pants, long sleeves, gloves) and hold something on fire (I’ve seen road flares, and a butane torch).  The pyrotechnician will light the end of the firework, brace themselves, and the firework will go off two to three seconds later.  Nothing quite gets a shooter’s adrenaline up like a hand-fire show!

But most fireworks are fired electrically, and so the pyrotechnician must insert an intermediate piece to convert an electric pulse into a flame that can shoot a firework.  This intermediate piece is called an electronic match (e-match for short) and has a tiny resistor in the end of it that is deliberately overwhelmed, causing the resistor to fail and catch on fire.  This tiny flame, once fed, starts the chain reaction that ends with a giant ball of light in the sky.

An E-match

Most large fireworks need an e-match, although smaller pyro effects are built to already include this resistor.

Of note with e-matches: these are sensitive to any form of electricity.  If lightning is in the area, everyone should stay away from everything that is already wired up, and on dry days, pyrotechnicians should be careful to discharge any built-up static periodically.

The last step in setting up a show is tone testing: here the pyrotechnician turns on the firing system and uses it to check continuity: that every cue that is expected to have product in it, has something wired into it.  All the pyrotechnician can see is if there is a completed circuit or not; if the electricity passes into one wire and back down the other wire.  Technically the product is not checked.  After thousands of years of fireworks, however, the industry is pretty sure that a firework will go “boom” when a flame is set to it.  Of note is that if something goes wrong during tone testing, product may go off.  No one should be near the effects when they are being tested.

A Cobra 18R2 Wireless Remote- the numbered circles will light up if continuity for a cue is found during tone testing.

Running the Show

There are a few variations here (hand-fire vs electric vs electronic shows), but the point is an effect is triggered, and (hopefully!) it goes off.

It’s unusual for large shows to have a 100% success rate (everything is hand-made, hand-wired…).  A failure rate of under 5% is considered “good”.

Post-Show

NFPA 1123 mandates that pyrotechnicians wait at least 10 minutes after the last fireworks shell is fired before anyone approaches the shoot site: it is possible that a shell did not fire on command (due to whatever reason) but has been sitting in its mortar, smouldering, waiting (this is called a hangfire).  Shells have been known to go off 30 minutes after a show.

After at least 10 minutes, the operator can approach the shoot site and start looking for shells that didn’t go off.  Respect your operator as they do their post-show: their job is to look down the barrel of a smoking gun and figure out if the gun is smoking because it just went off, or because it is about to go off.

After the operator has cleared the site, others can come in and start breaking things down.

Further Reading

National Fire Protection Agency 1123 : “Code for Fireworks Display”

National Fire Protection Agency 1126: “Standard for the Use of Pyrotechnics Before a Proximate Audience”

National Fire Protection Agency 160: “Standard for the Use of Flame Effects Before an Audience”

Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, and Explosive’s “Orange Book”

Pyrotechnic Innovation’s “Fireworks Training: Dud”

Dictionary.com’s “Module”

Dictionary.com’s “Wire”

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