Standing around in July heat with a fireman’s jacket, a helmet, and leather boots is not what most people would call a good time.
Add heavy gloves and a face shield, combined with fire all around and cinders raining down from the sky, and most people would probably not celebrate their Fourth of July like that.
However, Bob Pierson is not one of those people.
Ever since Pierson was a young boy, he wanted to help shoot fireworks.
“When I was six years-old, I was watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July, and I told my mom I wanted to shoot fireworks for a living,” Pierson said.
Pierson’s first chance to live that dream came when he helped shoot a Fourth of July show at the age of 16.
Pierson is now 47 and has 31 years of experience in the pyrotechnics field.
Every year, Pierson helps set up and shoot fireworks shows for festivals throughout the Utah area, including a Fourth of July show.
Making lights and fire sparkle in the summer, night sky takes a lot of work. The typical show day for a fireworks shooter is long, with large shows taking almost the entire day to set up.
The first thing a shooter does is go to the show grounds early in the morning, usually around 6 a.m.
“We like to get there real early in the day when it is cool,” Pierson said.
Federal and state rules require a fall-out area to be marked off around the shoot so nobody will get hurt. All the fireworks have to be prepared for the shoot under the supervision of a certified pyrotechnician.
Most of the fireworks are in the shape of a ball and are called “shells.” Each shell has to be attached to a fuse and packed in a “rack” on top of a lifting charge. The rack is basically a hole in a wooden frame made to shoot the shell straight up when the lifting charge explodes.
If everything goes as planned, the shell will fly to a predetermined height and explode at the highest point of the lift, before it comes back down.
The diameter of the shell determines the amount of explosives inside the firework and the size of the bang.
“The salutes that everyone likes are three inches in diameter,” Pierson said. “The shells go all the way up to 12 inches.”
A 4-inch shell has the power to destroy an entire watermelon with nothing but the seeds left, Pierson said.
“The fireworks are a lot more violent on the ground than you can ever dream,” Pierson said. “They are scary.”
The power of the fireworks and their potential danger puts the fireworks shooters under the tight scrutiny of the city and federal governments.
“You have to have copies of the fireworks permit, your workers compensation insurance, a listing of dangerous materials and a copy of your certified pyrotechnician license,” Pierson said.
The fire department also supervises the shooters and their work to make sure it is safe.
“I am always buddies with the fire department,” Pierson said. “They like to touch and see the fireworks.”
The fire department helps monitor the large amount of equipment required at the shows.
“A large show will have around 1,000 shells,” Pierson said. “Every shell has to be prepackaged before the show into a rack because we never reload a rack during a show. Most of the problems in a show come from reusing a rack.”
Once all the shells are packed, they are given “quickmatch” fuses that burn 30 to 60 feet a second, Pierson said.
With all the fireworks ready and wired to a computer, so the explosions can be timed to the music, the show is set to begin around 10 p.m.
During the show, one shooter stands at the computer and others work in the shooting area to make sure everything goes smoothly.
“There is fire all over during the show, the racks are on fire, and there are cinders coming down,” Pierson said. “It is a rush.”
After the show, the shooters have to wait around for one to two hours for the shooting area to cool down and to look for dud fireworks.
When the handling of extremely dangerous “dud” fireworks at 1 a.m. is over, the shooters clean up and finish their 19-hour day of fireworks.