Each year around the Fourth of July, Americans of all political persuasions set aside their differences and come together in celebration of one inalienable truth: Watching shit blow up in the sky is cool as hell. While fireworks displays have become an inextricable aspect of contemporary Americana, it's easy to overlook just how long they've been with us. The practice is, of course, a tradition that stretches all the way back to seventh-century China, which is appropriate, since the majority of the 17 million pounds of fireworks set off in July every year by professionals, and 170 million pounds by amateurs at home, are actually made in China. USA! USA!
For all the wonder and spectacle that fireworks evoke, they're also a pretty efficient delivery system of another tried and true American pastime: fucking ourselves up. In 2013, for example, an estimated 11,400 people went to the hospital for fireworks-related injuries.
While there's certainly a thrill to setting off your own display in your backyard, and getting wasted and handling explosive devices that scare the shit out of your neighbors is undoubtedly a good idea, more often than not, as with many things, it's best to leave fireworks to the professionals. I asked a few of those professionals about what goes into becoming a fireworks pro. My panel included Mike Tockstein of Pyrotechnic Innovations, a California group that trains prospective pyrotechnicians, who's done shows for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and New Year's Day at the Rose Bowl; Jonathan Gesse of Chicago's Melrose Pyrotechnics, the group behind the 2012 Super Bowl show; and Rocco Vitale of Pyrotecnico, one of the biggest operators in the country.
VICE: What exactly is it that you do?
Mike Tockstein: I've been doing pro fireworks displays as an operator for about 15 years now. I'm basically the guy that is in charge of putting together a crew and setting the display up and firing the display, whether it's just the display itself or choreographed with music or whatnot. I train a lot of the new technicians that come in. I originally got my license back in 2001. I started Pyrotechnic Innovations to recruit people to work my crews. Usually when you first start you have the "Friends and Family Crew," and it's a lot more stressful for the operator in charge because you're responsible for the success and execution of the show. The "Friends and Family Crew" are more there to hang out, like, "Hey, this is kind of cool!" They're not the kind of people that you can say, "I need you to set up this part of the show and knock it it out." That takes a lot of training. You need people who are passionate about pyrotechnics.
Rocco Vitale: Our company dates back to 1889. My great-grandfather started it. My brother runs it, and we are both fourth generation. It's a family business. Our company now has offices all over the US, from New Hampshire out to Los Angeles, so we cover the majority of, not every state, but we have a big footprint. We've got about 85 full time employees and do 2,500 displays a year. We're a fireworks company, and we have a special effects division that handles indoor pyro, close-proximity effects, lasers, and so on.
What are some notable events you've worked?
Vitale: We do a diverse amount of events every year. We actually have our event, PyroFest, that we produce in Pittsburgh. It's one of America's largest fireworks festivals. We do about nine displays thorough the weekend. We do anywhere from two to three shows per night, every Memorial Day weekend. That's one we're very proud of. From an Independence Day standpoint we do a lot of major municipalities: Pittsburgh, Houston, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Philadelphia, and as far out west as Las Vegas. So it's a busy day for us.
Tockstein: Me personally, I've participated in Fourth of July displays for about 15 years. The last few years, including this year, I'm the operator in charge of the display at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which is a a pretty big display in California. I've done tons of weddings, corporate events, homecomings, graduations. I did fireworks on the Queen Mary on Long Beach for years, and I was part of the crew that did the show for the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 2010. I've done shows at Dodger Stadium and New Year's Day at the Rose Bowl.
When did you get the fireworks bug?
Jonathan Gesse: Like most guys, fireworks have always been interesting to me. [I have] the typical Fourth of July memories: lighting 1.4/Class C fireworks [Editor's Note: "1.4/Class C" refers to the regular fireworks you can buy at a store] off at home.
Tockstein: I've liked fireworks ever since I was a little kid. And I couldn't wait until I could do it legally and professionally. I got licensed two weeks after my 21st birthday and shot my first Fourth shortly thereafter.
Vitale: It's always kind of been a source of survival for my family, so I grew up in it. I remember hanging out in the office when my dad was running the company, and during the 80s we used to do the Washington Monument show every year, and it was an annual thing to go spend the Fourth in Washington, DC. I think my earliest fireworks memories kind of start there. I started working in our warehouse where we have all our equipment when I was 16. There were no explosives there, you can't handle them until you're 18, so I started unloading trucks. When I turned 18, it was a summer job for me. Maybe when I was like 20 or 21 it kind of grabbed me a little bit. I started working full-time at the plant headquarters in Newcastle, Pennsylvania.
How does one go about getting a job in fireworks?
Vitale: We hold annual classes every year throughout the regions where we have facilities, typically in the spring. And if someone calls up or emails and says they're interested in getting on a fireworks display or special effects show, we go through necessary channels to get the paperwork filled out, to meet all the regulations as far as touching explosives go. I always say it's an apprenticeship, essentially. You go on your first show and you'll know if you like it or don't after your first couple. Then, you know, from there you kind of work your way up through the system. Some move more quickly than others.
Tockstein: You have to apprentice for a couple years before you can apply for your license. There's a lot of red tape to go through. California's one of the strictest when it comes to the red tape to get the license. You have to apprentice on a crew for two years, working a minimum of eight public displays, and you have to get five letters from five licensed operators. You have to submit your fingerprints and take a written state fire-martial pyro exam. A lot of the guys that work for me have no intention of getting their license. You can be unlicensed and still be part of the crew.
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Is it possible to make it a full-time job?
Vitale: The majority of the people who go out and execute shows, a lot of them are essentially licensed hobbyists. This is what they like to do in their off-time. I always say it's one of the few hobbies that you actually get paid to do as well. I don't know the statistics, but there is a percentage who do it just because they like it.
Tockstein: It's very seasonal, even though there are shows year round. I just shot one on Friday for a big private wedding at a resort in Orange County. You do make a few bucks on the bigger shows.
How much does one get paid?
Tockstein: It will vary quite drastically. It depends on the crew they have to pay, people to feed, the supplies needed. The operator in charge gets a percentage of the show. Most people work as independent contractors for the display company. It depends on the size of the show and the number of crew. I wouldn't say I fall under any sort of average, because I always have really big crews because I'm training people. Most of my shows are worked with volunteers because it's not realistic to pay everybody, except for the bigger shows. On the Fourth of July I take care of my crew really well, but the show has to be pretty substantial. Like I said, it's more of a hobby. Very few people get the opportunity to do this. Pretty much everybody that does fireworks has a real passion for it. It's a lot of hard work, but it's very rewarding at the end of the day.
Do people in the field need to have technical or scientific backgrounds?
Tockstein: I can tell you that the licensed pyrotechnicians I know have a big variety of backgrounds. Does having some technical prowess help? Absolutely. Is it necessary? Not really. During your apprenticeship you're learning all the little ins and outs, how the different electrical firing systems work, how to debug a continuity issue… so you learn the technical aspects that are required to do the job when you're being trained.
Have you seen a lot of accidents over the years?
Tockstein: I've never witnessed an injury or accident. There are a lot of laws in place to help prevent that. Common sense goes a long way, also. As an operator in charge, the responsibility falls on my shoulders for the safety of my crew and that of the audience, so I'm a big stickler on safety, as most operators are. Going the extra mile to make sure you understand the materials you're dealing with and you understand how they are safely set up, that's obtained through training.
Most of the accidents you hear on the Fourth of July are from people playing with consumer fireworks. It's very rare that there's an accident in a professional event, even though we're dealing with much more energetic materials.
Do you have a favorite firework?
Tockstein: One of the all-time favorites, among most of the people I've worked with, are the big golden brocades. It's basically a golden glitter shower, a shell that fills the sky with golden glitter stars. When you break multiple of those shells at a time you're really filling the sky. It's a really spectacular look. On top of that there a lot of really neat things people like: pattern shells, happy faces, hearts, letters, stars, planet Saturns, rings. There's quite a variety you can do as far as patterns in the sky. You usually hear a little bump from the audience when you see a happy face break in the sky.
What's a big misconception about fireworks among the public?
Gesse: There are many people who will ask me, "What do you do the rest of the year?" They don't realize that it takes year-round work to prepare for a successful Fourth of July. We actually begin designing in December. We import and test product, prepare and maintain equipment, design displays, work on marketing and advertising—the list goes on. We also put on fireworks displays throughout the year—the NFL and NBA in the fall and winter, baseball is a long season, and we usually do some international displays in the fall as well.
Tockstein: A common misconception is what you're shooting in the sky. Most people associate what they see with rockets, but that couldn't be further from the truth. At 99 percent of the shows you're not going to ever use rockets—they aren't as safe because they continue to be under propulsion once they leave the site of launch. If they start to trend in an undesirable direction, they're still being propelled. Professionals use mortars, we fire the aerial display shells out of mortars. It's a lot safer to use, far easier to set up, and more consistent in function compared with a rocket, and you're not very limited on how big of a shell you can fire in the air with a mortar, whereas you would be with a rocket.
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How does that actually work?
Tockstein: A mortar is like a cannon. You have a black powder charge underneath the shell. That's ignited, and it fires the shell out of the gun up into the air. At the same time it also lights a tiny fuse on the shell that burns for a set number of seconds. The bigger the shell, the longer the lift time into the sky. And once the shell gets to its apogee or highest point in the sky, the shell is ignited, with burst charges, not black powder, but something similar. It burns really fast and hot and produces a lot of gas so it will cause overpressure inside the shell, blowing it open at high velocity. The first charge also ignites all of the contents inside the shell, which is typically the stars that you see.
Has there been much innovation in fireworks in recent years, or, you know, ever?
Gesse: Technology has changed the industry greatly. Melrose no longer hand-fires displays. Every show we do is fired electrically, which provides distance between the technicians and the fireworks and also allows us to script every show for timing.
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