Explosions in the Sky: How a Fireworks Show is Made

by Jack Dodson for The Pilot (Southern Pines, NC)

Summer 2010

For Jeff Hale, owner of Lexington-based fireworks -company Hale Artificier, putting on the Robbins Farmers Day fireworks show takes a lot more time than the 15 minutes it’s actually happening.

The explosive event takes more than a day to produce, Hale says, including hours of work after the last shell has lit up the sky.

“It’s a lot more work behind the scenes than people realize,” Hale says. “For a small show like Robbins even, we’re talking a day and a half of work.”

Hale’s company has put on the fireworks display at Farmers Day for almost a decade. For the event, which is set for 10:15 p.m. Friday, August 6, Hale makes sure to get to the site early – for safety reasons, but also to enjoy the festivities.

“I would say I’ve been doing Robbins now for a long time – six or seven years, maybe,” he says. “We’ve had a good time down there. I do expect to eat a couple good hamburgers from the street vendors. We just kind of hang out and enjoy the day, and then it’s down to business.”

Hale, who has been working for pyrotechnics companies for 26 years, started his business in 1997 after working for a few national companies.

“I felt there was a need for a local company,” he says.

For him, one of the major concerns is the materials used in the show. Hale says his set-up is traditional, using tubes and racks to keep the shells in, with mortar plugs attached.

“We pre-load every shell,” he says. “If we have 1,000 fireworks, then we have 1,000 shells with 1,000 mortar plugs in the bottom of them.”

He says the process for putting the show together is long, but it’s not without creative elements. All the shells that go off are hand-picked and -placed by Hale, but creativity isn’t easy in smaller shows.

“Most of the smaller hometown shows like Robbins aren’t a large display, so we just try to shoot off what we can to make it interesting,” he says

So Hale plans out ahead of time how the show will look, how and when certain shells will go off. He decides what kind of equipment to bring, and how many people to have accompany him on the job.

“There’s a lot of planning that goes into it – it’s not just showing up in a truck and shooting off fireworks,” he says.

The process begins with checking out the site where the fireworks will go off, making sure it meets all the safety requirements. It needs to meet fire codes, Hale says, in order to be approved.

“We need to make sure we meet that criteria – there are no extraneous materials, no overhead obstructions,” Hale says. “Then we need to apply for a license.”

The license – usually good for one day, up until midnight, Hale says – is granted by the Moore County Commissioners board, so it needs to be planned well ahead of the actual event. This year, he’s even had some early Independence Day clients call him so he can prepare for July 4, 2011.

“We need to make sure there’s enough of a window to get on (the board’s) agenda,” he says.

Then on the day of the actual show, Hale makes sure his team gets to the site early enough so that if there are any issues, they can be taken care of before the show begins.

Weather, for example, plays a large role in Hale’s day of setup. If the weather’s bad enough, Hale would have to pack up his equipment – all the tubes, the mortars and fuses, the racks and hundreds of shells waiting to be set off would be loaded back into the truck and hauled back to Lexington.

“But in this part of the country,” he says, “a summer thunderstorm rolls in and we just wait it out.”

If Hale’s able to shoot the fireworks, then the packing up happens after the show, as well as cleanup.

“Then, of course, we have to break that equipment down, put it back in the truck and clean up our site,” Hale says.

With shows constantly going on in South Carolina and Virginia as well as North Carolina, Hale keeps himself busy. He tries to come to the Robbins event when he can, because he says he enjoys hanging out at Farmers Day when he’s not working.

He says he’s planning on attending a fireworks convention the day after he’s scheduled to put on the Robbins show and considered letting a crew go without him to do the show. But he says he thinks he would prefer to come, because he wouldn’t want to miss Farmers Day.

 

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