Pyro resorts to explosive measures
Fireworks are a Fourth of July celebration staple, but partygoers should remember the people behind the stage who coordinate the show.
The licensed professionals who study and set off the light shows are known as pyrotechnicians, and their skills are used in movie sets, concerts, weddings and outdoor shows. Although it is an exciting job, the road to a career dealing with explosives entails hard labor, years of apprenticeship and minute attention to safety.
‘Pyro is back-breaking labor at times,’ Angel Ajmani said, a licensed pyrotechnician. ‘It takes intelligence, integrity and strength to make a show happen. It’s not for individuals with delicate feelings hiding behind big egos.’
Ajmani said that she was always fascinated by fire. She channeled her interest into a stage career as a circus fire-eater, then discovered her calling as a licensed pyrotechnician.
Ajmani has used her plasma know-how to develop special effects for movie sets and live concerts, as well as the Texas Renaissance Festival, Burning Man and July Fourth celebrations.
Ajmani has noticed that several fireworks always please crowds, while others have grown in popularity.
‘Big Booms, aka ‘salutes’, are always a hit,’ Ajmani said. ‘Some people like the sparkling, slower, pretty effects. Shapes have been popular in the last few years (hearts, rings, etc.) are devices called ‘z cakes’ that (shoot) rapid effects back and forth in a zigzag pattern.’
Ajmani, however, doesn’t doubt the effect of explosions and lights.
‘There are trends in the product style, but for the most part, if we can get something to launch off the ground and explode in the sky, then the audience is happy,’ she said.
While Ajmani boasts a glamorous r’eacute;sum’eacute;, all pyrotechnicians undergo years of apprenticeship before taking an exam to obtain a license. Most state laws require that before taking the exam, prospective pyrotechnicians must work for at least five professional fireworks operators, provide at least five letters of recommendation and work a minimum number of shows within two years of their exam date.
Other snubs in the world of pyrotechnics are, alcohol and drugs. Applicants and crew members are often subject to criminal background and mental health checks.
‘Basically, we first reject anyone who wants to entertain the idea of engaging in risky (and frankly, stupid) behavior,’ Ajmani said.
The work doesn’t end after obtaining a license. Ajmani said that a pyrotechnician’s daily chores include lifting mortars, nailing racks, wiring systems and driving heavy machinery.
Ajmani found that she had to overcome a unique hurdle when her colleagues worried that she could not handle heavy lifting.
‘Some operators thought I would not be strong enough to handle the work involved with pyro because I’m small,’ Ajmani said. ‘I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, ‘You’re too pretty to be a pyrotechnician.”
Ajmani said that she overcame these perceptions by facing the commitments of pyrotechnic work head-on.
‘It’s tough, but I love it … and I’m living proof that pyro is not a gender specific occupation,’ Ajmani said.
In addition to the challenges of setting up fireworks shows, pyrotechnicians must always worry about safety. Ajmani said that pyrotechnicians prevent fires by paying attention to wind, dry brush and the distance of the audience from the explosives.
Static can set off unwanted explosions, so crewmembers handle boxes carefully and avoid using cell phones while setting up shows. Pyrotechnicians must also survey their workspace for curious spectators who wander too close.
‘The worst ones are holding a cigarette in one hand and their child in the other. Such inconsiderate behavior is potentially very dangerous to all parties involved,’ she said.
Ajmani said setting up shows on golf courses presents the unique challenge of fighting off disgruntled players.
‘Sometimes when I have a setup on a golf course, the patrons give me grief because one of their holes is shut down. This can be tedious at times, but it is for the sake of their own safety that they go around the site rather than through it,’ Ajmani said.
Some of the fireworks owned by licensed pyrotechnicians come with unique systems that will halt detonation and require special passwords before they are set off.
Pyrotechnicians detonate magnificent works of art, but their day jobs are not without worries.
‘Setting up a show is a whole lot of hard labor,’ she said. ‘I equate it to Thanksgiving dinner: you spend an entire day or more slaving away so you and the guests can experience 20 minutes of pure heaven. Then you have to clean the whole mess up once everyone has left the party.’