Behind the scenes of suburban fireworks shows
Each Fourth of July, and many days in between, Dan Miller lives out many a young boy's dream - he gets to blow stuff up.
As a kid, it was his own dream, too. Each year, he couldn't wait to set off firecrackers on the Fourth. When he turned 18, he pestered local fireworks companies until one offered him a job. Thirty-six years later, he still gets a kick out of setting off the fireworks at baseball games, weddings, and of course, the mother of them all - Fourth of July shows.
"It's like you're a kid again, except you don't have to worry about the cops coming," said Miller, who works for Mad Bomber Fireworks Productions in Elgin. "My childhood fascination turned into a full-time job."
In the air, his audiences get to revel in the colorful exploding bursts. But on the ground, Miller's too busy making it all happen to usually even see his show. And with the Fourth of July approaching, he and other pyrotechnicians know they won't be slowing down anytime soon.
The fireworks at the end of the Schaumburg Flyers baseball games are kind of a big deal.
In fact, some people come to Alexian Field just for them. Aaron Studebaker, the Flyers' executive director of operations, recalls one family who asked for tickets to the fireworks show. "They didn't even know there was a baseball game at all," he says with a laugh.
People camp out in the parking lot and pull over on the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway to watch the 8-minute shows, he says. And that's fine with him. "We want to have a great show," he says. "And we'd love to see a stadium full of non-baseball fans."
So Miller has a lot to live up to. His company does the Flyers' games and other shows across the suburbs. This year, it'll handle the city of Aurora's Fourth of July show.
On a recent Friday, he and his son, Don, set up in a vacant lot directly behind the Flyers' center field scoreboard. They've unpacked and assembled the wooden racks that hold the shells. Now it's time to prep them for firing.
The Flyers' show is a much-scaled-down version of a Fourth of July show. The average holiday program lasts between 20 and 30 minutes and can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 - or more, depending on quantity and quality. The major big-city shows can cost well into six figures.
Melrose Pyrotechnics, based in Kingsbury, Ind., is one of the region's leading production companies, doing shows in St. Charles, Naperville, Lisle and Batavia and at Navy Pier and the Taste of Chicago.
Most of their shows are choreographed to music.
"Every show is scripted," says Bob Kearns, director of operations. "You're not just shooting fireworks; you're recreating scenes."
After creating a musical soundtrack, designers pinpoint where in the track an effect occurs.
"If you want a shell to break at this point, and it takes five seconds to leave the ground, the computer back-times that and it knows when the shell must leave," Kearns says. "Everything is controlled by electronic igniters."
The program creates a layout with specific cues for the operator to follow on game day. "It's a blueprint," he says.
The best part about designing shows is the creative aspect, says Dan Tomlinson, with Central State Fireworks. He loves experimenting, changing angles, size and positioning of the explosions.
"The sky is your canvas," he says. "You hired me to paint the sky."
Smaller fireworks shows, like high school football games, can range from $2,500 to $5,000. The Flyers show is comprised of a mix of individual fireworks and special effects, which contain multiple blasts, and the grand finale. The effects and finale are handled electronically; the individual shells are done manually.
Miller places each individual shell - which looks like a tennis ball wrapped in brown paper - into one of the rack's circular tubes. He leaves the 2-foot fuse hanging out, which he'll later light with a flare. Meanwhile, the finale and special effects shells are hooked to wires that are connected to a main cable box called a firing system. The system is battery-operated and controlled by switches.
Once setup's complete, the Millers wait for the cue, which comes just after the game's end. One by one, the stadium lights go out. It's dark for a few seconds, as people's eyes adjust. Then the first burst lights up the sky.
The U.S. fireworks industry has seen major growth in the last decade. In 1998, industry revenues were $425 million; in 2009, they were $945 million, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.
But the number of consumer-related fireworks accidents is at an all-time low, thanks in part to a beefing up of safety campaigns and consumer education programs, a 2009 APA report shows. In 2008, the last year data was available, there were 7,000 estimated injuries compared to 11,000 in the year 2000, the report shows.
No numbers are kept on accidents resulting from display fireworks - the professional shows - because they're so rare, says APA Executive Director Julie Heckman. But accidents, like an electronic malfunction or a prematurely exploding shell, can always happen, and pyrotechnicians take every precaution possible, such as protecting their additional supplies and wearing safety gear like ear plugs, glasses, flame-retardant clothing and hard hats.
At the Flyers game, a local fire marshal was on scene, unlocking exits so people could leave in case of emergency and clearing crowds so they were at least 300 feet away from the shells.
Schaumburg fire inspector Parnell Murray calls the area around the shells the "kill zone." "People think it's safe, but every year, something happens somewhere," he says.
Pyrotechnicians don't expect much sleep over the Fourth of July weekend - it's by far their most chaotic time.
Mad Bomber, for instance, will do 75 shows on July 4 in the Chicago area, and they plan all year to make it happen. Miller oversees distribution, coordinating to ensure the right supplies get to each site.
Crews often begin setting up a few days before. Shells can't be wired or dropped into their tubes until the morning of the show, leaving crews working nonstop - often without lunch breaks - to prepare the thousands of individual shells. Of course, their biggest challenge is always the weather, though shows can - and do - go off in the rain.
Miller doesn't have time to see his own work.
He lights each individual shell with a flare, pulling quickly back as it catches, while his son runs the switches on the firing system. The show runs nonstop with flashes of pink and green and silver and purple and a few seconds of darkness every now and then. The special effects seem a finale on their own, the sky covered in blazing white sparks.
At the end, the crowd erupts.
In the parking lot, a mix of ashes and debris and smoke has created a thick haze, and Miller is sweating.
"It's a little aggressive, but that's what I look forward to," he says.
Another show is successfully complete. And the end, of course, is the best part.
"There's total appreciation," Miller says. "Let's face it - fireworks make everyone happy. And how often do you get to make everyone happy at the end of the day?"
Handle with care: Tips on how to stay safe if you plan to light off a few fireworks
• Always read and follow label directions.
• Always have an adult present and in charge of lighting off the device.
• Only buy from reliable fireworks sellers.
• Only ignite fireworks outdoors.
• Be sure to have water handy.
• Never experiment or attempt to make your own fireworks.
• Light only one at a time.
• Never re-ignite malfunctioning fireworks.
• Never give fireworks to children.
• Store fireworks in a cool, dry place.
• Dispose of fireworks properly.
• Never throw fireworks at another person.
• Never carry fireworks in your pocket.
• Never shoot fireworks in metal or glass containers.
Source: American Pyrotechnics Association