"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Fireworks: A Day in the Life of a Pyrotechnician

Toby Roworth

Nov 5, 2018

In addition to my main job, I'm also a part-time pyrotechnician. 2018 is the first year in the last six that I'm not firing shows around Guy Fawkes Night.
Firing fireworks has to be one of the more exciting jobs, but behind 12 minutes of flashes and bangs a lot more is going on, and in this post I'll go through a day in the life.

The day usually starts early, 5 or 6 AM is common, to grab some breakfast before going to the mags where all the kit is stored. Quite often we'll have prepped the vans the night before with all their mortar racks, so the last job to do before driving off to site is loading in the fireworks themselves.
Most shows need at least one van-load of kit, which will be about two-thirds mortar racks, and the rest fireworks, bigger shows need a second, or even third, van. After this first manual handling job of the day, we get in the van and drive down to site.
Most shows require a few hours of driving - the company is based up near Liverpool, and we get a lot of shows down toward Kent. We'll usually be on site by about 11 AM for a bigger show - smaller shows can be set up much later, only taking a couple of hours.
Once on site we check the safety distance to the crown and then we start pulling out all the gear, and setting it up into the firing sites - multiple firing sites are what gives a display it's width, but what actually constitutes a "site" is a separate line of cakes, maybe 20 m apart.
The cakes get laid out in the order they'll be fired in, and the smaller cakes get staked into the ground. Despite best intentions, this will inevitably involve laying out the cakes several times. The cakes have been fused back at the mags, and waterproofed, so all we need to do is take them out of their boxes. The firing site is usually a bit of a walk from where the vans are parked, some sites more so than others, so this is a lot of carrying or carting.

We'll also take all the mortar racks out to the shell site, when we have one. Our racks are thick cardboard tubes in wooden frames (often quite damp after a few November shows), so are really heavy. It's easy enough to carry a 65 or 75 mm rack under each arm, but the 6 inch racks get very difficult to move, needing a trolley. A bigger show can easily have 30 mortar racks to put out, which can take an hour or so, followed by strapping each section together to stop the racks falling over if something goes wrong. Like many jobs rigging a firing site, we have to keep safety very much in mind here.
Once the racks are out we load them with the shells. Each shell gets dropped into a tube, and the fuses tied to one side so they're accessible whilst firing. Each hit of shells has a cue number, so they all have to be loaded into the right tubes - this takes ages, usually another hour or so. After loading the shells, we'll put plastic sheet over the top of the tubes to stop water getting in if it rains.
At this point, maybe 3 or 4 PM, a hand-fired show is mostly set up. We might manage to get some lunch in at this point, if we haven't had a break earlier in the day. However, if the show is electrically fired, there's still a lot of work to do. Every single hit in the show will have its igniter wired back to a patch box, with many igniters needing extending, some needing joining to get two effects going off on the same hit. This can take several hours. On really big shows we have two days to set up, of which half can just be wiring. We did a really big show a couple of years back where everything needed wiring in a single day. Myself and a colleague spent about 8 hours solely wiring hundreds, maybe over a thousand, of one-shot devices, which was only about half of the entire show. Because the electrically fired shows take longer to set up, we'd usually get to site a bit earlier, so we don't need to wire in the dark.

Photo credit: Dave "Bloody Campanile" Hawkins
At this point we're pretty much ready to fire - usually just after sunset. We the have a couple of hours to kill, where we'll try and get some dinner, inevitably from a nearby burger van, talk through how the show's going to fire, and discuss anything else that passes the time. Some shows also have other bits to set up in this time, like fire writing.
About half an hour to an hour before the show fires we'll put our firing kit on. This consists of fireproof overalls, a hard hat, ear defenders, a face shield and gloves. Trying to fit several layers under the overalls to keep warm can be challenging, and can result in an appearance similar to the Michelin Man. Then we get into position.
For an electrically-fired show, we'll be sat a short distance away, either flicking a switch to fire each hit, or letting a computerised system do that for us. Someone will keep an eye on the timing, whilst someone else hits the switches. For a computerised show, the fire button is pressed, and then the show runs itself. Anyone else will keep an eye on where the fireworks are heading, in case unexpected wind is taking them too close to the crowd. We'll also keep an eye out for any fires - it's not uncommon for a cake to catch fire during/after firing, and if it's in a larger section this will need putting out quickly, otherwise it'll get dealt with at the end.

A hand-fired show is more involved and much more exciting to fire. We'll each have a dozen portfires - slow burning sticks that are used to light the fuses. The fuses have a one-second delay fitted to the end, after which the rest of the fuse goes almost instantly. We'll get right next to the firework (within arms reach), crouch down and when the time is right, light the fuse. The delay isn't long enough to do anything more than move back by a foot or so, at which point the cake goes off. Once it's started, we can stand up and walk onto the next one, making sure to stay out of the way of anything coming out of angled cakes.
Firing shells is the same process, except there are often several hits in quick succession, so there's no chance to move back at all. With five seconds between hits, it can take that long just to find the fuse under the waterproofing. When it gets really tricky we might go "straight to match", which is where we ignore the delay fuse, and burn into the blackmatch - as soon as this catches, the shell gets fired into the air, with you right next to it. The feeling of a shell going off is incredible - you really feel the bigger shells in your chest, given that their lift charge is going off a foot or two away from you.
Occasionally a couple of fireworks go wrong. On my very first show we had a couple of cakes split apart, along with a shell that broke as it left the mortar, instead of a hundred feet in the air. This was a great sight from where we were - picture the big bursts of stars you see in the sky, but from the inside! This is why we wear all the firing kit...
Once the show is done, often 8 to 20 minutes from the start (although it can feel like three, with all the adrenaline), we start to pack up. We wait a couple of minutes, put out any fires, and then we do a live check, where we look at everything to check it's actually gone off. If not it has to be carefully removed and put aside to be taken back to the mags for reuse or disposal. Most shows have a couple of shells that don't go off, and maybe half a cake that didn't fire.
We then start packing down, putting all the dead cakes back in the van - more carrying stuff. The mortar racks also need carrying back into the van. The job on site is a litter pick, where we clean up everything - there can be hundreds of little tubes to pick up, plastic waterproofing and sometimes live tubes from cakes that malfunctioned. Then we get in the van and drive back to the mags.
At sometime between 11 and 1, normally, we'll get back to the mags, and start unloading the van. All the mortar racks get cleaned, to remove any debris, and then get stacked up, ready to load the vans for the next day. This is a lot more carrying, and can be quite intense, half an hour of ferrying racks from the front to the back of the building, before lifting them onto their stack.
Once a van's cleaned out we'll get the firing sheet for the next day's show and load it back up. In this time, it's common for another van or two to come back, which we'll help unload and reload. Once everyone's sorted out we drive back to the hotel and get a few hours sleep before doing the whole thing again the next day.
So behind those 12 minutes of fireworks you see at a display, there can be a few guys working long days, carrying heavy things and driving long distances. But it's entirely worth it to be next to the fireworks when they go off - we don't get to see what goes on up in the sky, but being right next to explosives when they go off is a lot more fun in my view, and well worth the hard work.