For Fireworks Technicians, Independence Day Is Christmas in July
For most overworked Americans, the Fourth of July is a chance to kick back, relax and take in the joys of summer. That's especially true this year, since the holiday falls on a Monday, creating for many a three-day weekend.
Of course, there is a core group for whom Independence Day is just another workday. They include firemen, police officers, health-care workers and a bevy of service personnel busy at the nation's retail stores and eateries. Then there are folks like Jim Souza (pictured below), who help us celebrate July Fourth by creating fabulous fireworks displays.
Souza's company, Rialto, Calif.-based Pyro Spectaculars, will be putting on about 400 shows for the Fourth of July holiday. "It's a lot projects," he says.
Most notable among them is the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks celebration in New York, which marks its 35th year this year. The fireworks show, the largest in the nation, includes six barges spread out over a mile of the Hudson River.
The company is also responsible for the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, Americafest at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (in its 85th year, it is the largest show in Southern California), as well as displays in San Francisco and Honolulu.
Souza's business pretty much coincides with baseball season, in part because his crews are kept busy by shows put on during minor- and major-league baseball games.
The number of workers varies, depending on the size of the display, but "every show requires one licensed technician," Souza says. Smaller shows require staffs of four, six or twelve, he says.
That requires a veritable army of freelance contractors who come together a few times each year to put on all of Souza's shows. "We have to rely on 400 licensed technicians and crew," he says.
Each of them have been schooled at what the company calls its pyro university, a two-year program, which familiarizes fireworks technicians with laws and regulations, and provides an understanding of the products used and how to launch "a safe and spectacular display," he says.
Beyond manpower, setting up a proper Fourth of July fireworks celebration also requires time. Souza notes that the New York celebration, for example, requires 12 days to set up and tear down. Smaller, local shows, near the company's home base, for example, can be set up and taken down the same day.
Prudent planning also helps in putting on a successful show, and Souza notes that months of preparation go into each event.
Though July 4 seems to come and go all too quickly for many Americans, for Souza's technicians it can be a long day that begins as early as 5 a.m., as crews work to set up and test displays -- a process that's usually completed by early afternoon.
"Then it's a long wait until the fireworks go off at 9 o'clock," he says.
Weather, of course, is important. Rain can put a damper on a display, but so can windy weather in dry climates, where setting off fireworks can pose a fire hazard.
Despite technological advances which allow for elaborate and carefully scripted displays, fireworks are still largely manufactured by hand in China, he says.
Souza marries that handcrafted precision with electronics, computers and other components to create, as he puts it, "a much more spectacular and entertaining show" for the audience.
The increased use of technology and ability to provide sophisticated shows means displays are constantly changing. The advances allow fireworks technicians to put together elaborate displays that resemble smiling faces, stars, planets with Saturn-like rings, jellyfish, and traditional floral patterns, such as giant chrysanthemums and peonies, among many others.
Though it may be his busy season, Souza says he intends to celebrate the Fourth just like many others. "I will be in New York," he says, "enjoying the wonderful show."
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David Schepp has spent more than a dozen years covering business news for the electronic and print media, including Dow Jones Newswires, BBC News, Gannett Co., and most recently at AOL's DailyFinance. Nearly 10 years ago, he started writing a weekly People@Work column, looking in depth at issues facing workers in today's workplace. The syndicated column appeared in newspapers and websites nationwide before it made its debut on DailyFinance in 2010. Schepp now continues that tradition at Aol Jobs, covering the jobs beat and providing readers insight and analysis into the nation's challenging employment scene.
Schepp holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Metropolitan State College of Denver.
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