Archive for the ‘Fire Fighting’ Category

PostHeaderIcon What Goes Up…Explodes!

Fireworks displays are often hand-fired, Joe Collins’ favorite way of shooting a show. And, this past weekend, he and a friend photographed a hand-fired show from beginning to end. Here’s what he had to say about the experience.

Loaded Trailer

Above, is a trailer loaded out for the show with racks, mortars, buckets, post-hole digger, fire extinguishers and other things needed.

Dropped Show

The show is “Dropped”—delivered by a special crew with the proper training, equipment, placards, trucks and certifications.


The mortars are dug in. Fours are in front, fives are in the middle and threes are at the end. This placement reduces the chances of loading the wrong sized shell into a mortar.

Dropping Finales

Finale racks are screwed together, and the shells are dropped. Finales are long chains of shells tied together with quickmatch so that when one shell is lit, the entire rack will fire in sequence.

Finale Racks

Above, you can see all the finale racks ready to be shot.

Bucket of 5s

The shells to be shot individually are put into buckets—basically a garbage can. With the lid turned upside down this provides some protection for the shells before they are loaded. Each size of shell has its own bucket. The person responsible for getting the shells out for the loader is called a “Bucket Tender.”


The cakes are set up. A cake is a multi-part firework. Each cardboard tube contains a shell or effect and all are lit off in sequence once the fuse is lit.

The next step is to wait for it to get dark. Bring bug spray, lawn chairs and plenty of water to drink!

Fusee Closeup

Something very much like a road flare—called a “Fusee” is fastened to the end of a piece of conduit. To light a shell, touch the burning end of the Fusee to the quickmatch or visco, make sure it is lit and briskly step away.

Lighting Shells

The bucket tender is to the left. And the shooter is lighting quickmatch which will light the shell.

Lifting Shell

To the loaders and bucket tenders, this is what a shell looks like as it’s lifting. In this case, it’s a five-inch shell.

I like to tell people I haven’t seen a fireworks show since I started shooting them because what you see above is pretty much all that I get to see.

Shell Hand-off

The loader is getting more shells from the bucket tender to be loaded into mortars. Note the fusee in the back pocket of the loader—in this case me. The extra fusee is a backup if something goes wrong with the one being used to light shells.

Loading Shells

Yes, we are often that close to lifting shells as we are loading. Although it looks as though I have my head over the mortar, I’m trying to be as far away from the mortar as I can, facing another direction as I drop the shell.

A lot of teamwork, training, experience and most importantly, trust is involved in shooting a fireworks show.

Stepping Fast

And everyone has to hustle, while being safe.

Cakes Lifting

Every once in a while, hit a cake or two. Yes, it does sometimes get a bit bright.

When the bucket tenders are out of shells, they turn their bucket over to let everyone know that they have no more shells. Then they can watch the end of the show.

Finale Lifting

Naturally, the last thing fired are the finale’s. I was about three-foot away from the racks when the shells started lifting.

Safety Check

When the show is done, every mortar and cake is checked to see if all the shells have fired. If a shell hasn’t lifted for some reason, the mortar is filled with water and it’s removed to go back to the fireworks company to see what went wrong.


Above, you can see where we blew the top off a five-inch mortar. It landed two-feet from a bucket tender’s head.

Then the hard work starts, tearing down everything and packing it away for the trip back to the fireworks bunker.

The job of a pyrotechnician is physically demanding, sometimes dangerous, doesn’t pay very well, and requires a lot of planning, training and experience to pull off, but the result is worth it!

* Joe Collins is a twelve-year veteran firefighter/paramedic in the busiest volunteer fire department in his county. He holds numerous fire and EMS certifications—many of the same as professional firefighters. During the day he works as a Critical Care Paramedic in the highest call volume EMS service in Iowa. For the past seven years, he has been a professional pyrotechnican working in the fireworks display industry.





PostHeaderIcon Fireworks: Behind The Scenes With Pyrotechnician Joe Collins

Everyone likes the Fourth of July–fireworks, food, and fun. For some of us, it’s a time of hard work, thrills, and sometimes danger.

For the past seven years, I have been a professional pyrotechnican working in the fireworks display industry.

The BATF—Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, abbreviated to ATF has defined various classes of fireworks. Consumer fireworks are most often classified as Class 1.4G—stuff you can buy in stores and shoot in your back yard—state and local laws permitting.

Most display fireworks are classified as Class 1.3G. I have a federal license to posses and shoot Class 1.3G fireworks as long as I am working for the display company that sponsored my license.

Now that the legalities are out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff!


The cone at the bottom of a typical shell is where the lift charge is located which is simply a bag of black powder enclosed in a protective cone of cardboard.

five inch shell

Tied into the bottom of the shell is quickmatch which is black match—cotton string covered or soaked in black powder that is enclosed in a paper tube or plastic tube all along the whole length. The tube forces the fire down at a very high speed (approximately 30 feet per second). This is what we light to “lift” the shell from the mortar, either electrically or by fire.


quickmatch closeup

You can see the blackmatch in the close up above.

The whole shell is wrapped in craft-type paper secured with glue.

On the top is a loop of string that is used to keep the quickmatch in the right place and in larger shells is used to lower the shell into the mortar.

To lift a shell, you need a mortar. They come in various sizes and are often held together to accomplish certain effects—the one below is called a finale rack—a series of mortars tied together that all lift shells at the end of a show.

finale rack

As you can see, there are several different sizes and the company I work for has a few of them.

mortar storage

Single mortars are what you see below and are often buried into the ground to stabilize them.


And, they come in a wide variety of sizes.

single mortar storage

big mortar

Our mortars are constructed of fiberglass which doesn’t cause the shrapnel problems if they blow out like the old steel mortars. They are also cheap to make and are lightweight.

mortar closeup

Shells blowing apart mortars happens more often than you would think and makes for an exciting experience when you are close to them.

This is why we wear protective clothing: it’s mandatory that you wear blue jeans, a cotton shirt, a helmet with a face shield and ear protection, gloves, and safety glasses.

safety gear

The most complex of shows to set up and shoot are electrically fired. Some shows are also required to be electrically fired—like those set to music and every barge shoot.

wired barge

The shells are ignited by an electric match which, when an electric current is applied to it, ignites a combustible compound. Think of a model rocket igniter but much more powerful.


The matches are wired into slats which are screwed to the top of the mortar racks.


slat closeup

The slats plug into cables.

slat cables

As you can see, it takes more than a few cables to wire up the shows.

The cables are plugged into a firing panel.

firing panel back

Firing panels come in a wide variety of configurations and sizes, some small:

small firing panel

Note the battery cables—most shows are fired using a car battery.

And some large-bigger shows are fired with larger panels.

100 shot firing panel

You may only notice that there are fifty switches. There are two banks. When you’ve fired the first fifty-shells, you flip a switch and you can shoot the second bank of shells.

bank switch

The really difficult part is making sure that the shells will fire when you flip the switch. There is a test function on the firing board which you can see below.

test and firing switch

There is an LED over each switch and if it doesn’t glow when you hit the test switch, then you have to figure out what is wrong with the circuit which can be very tedious to track down.

firing switches

Once the shells are loaded, wired, tested and otherwise ready to go, you can sit back and enjoy the show.

Next time we get to my favorite way of shooting a fireworks show—hand fired.


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