If you think “pyro” is a guy with a lighter and an overwhelming need to set stuff on fire ... you’re right. But when that guy has a license, he’s a “pyrotechnician.” And it turns out that getting that license—and putting on a super-charged fireworks show—goes far beyond a simple yearn to burn.
The dazzling displays over Utah’s parks and stadiums this July are not the work of dudes with a plumber’s crack hunkered over Looney Tunes-style rockets-on-a-stick. Many of them are the work of Bryan Leiran, whose job makes the complications of driving to Evanston for Black Cats look sparkler simple.
Leiran works for Lantis Fireworks and Lasers, a Salt Lake City-based company whose five offices and 1,000-person staff typically put on over 300 shows from June through August alone. Lantis has done the U of U’s Red Hot Fourth and the Park City Downhill World Cup, taking charge of the intricate process of designing and producing an “aerial show”—aka “really cool fireworks.”
It takes an entire team of people to elicit “oohs” and “aahs” from sunbaked crowds; Leiran’s role is what you’d get if you combined the responsibilities of a theatrical stage manager and a corporate salesperson. From first contact to final “ka-boom,” he coordinates all the diverse elements required to execute a show. “It’s not a package deal, like ‘choose A, B or C.’” he says. “The music, the shells we use ... it’s all designed for the specific location.”
Leiran goes to the site, decides on the best launch area, takes GPS coordinates and creates a map detailing buildings and other potential hazards. He decides what products can be used, and works with others on the design. He coordinates permits, insurance, load-in, even lodging and truck routes for out-of-state shows.
As for the actual shoot, though it is human supervised, the launch itself is all computer run. Lantis has a program that times the “lift to break” (launch to explosion) of a shell, and then actually ignites each shell so that it appears in the sky at the prescribed musical moment.
Pyrotechnicians also have to factor in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. For example, a relatively small 2.5-inch shell requires a “safety radius” of 300 feet—a fallout area where nothing and no one could unwittingly re-create a scene from Firestarter. That means considering wind direction, audience location and the shell’s “spread and angle as you design the show,” Leiran says.
Bob Pierson calls himself a “journeyman pyro,” and is a member of the Utah Pyrotechnics Association. He provides a different, yet no less complex perspective. While Leiran got into pyrotechnics just four years ago because he “knew the boss,” Pierson has had his pyro license for almost 30 years.
“When I was 6 years old, I was at the Liberty Park show, and I told my parents, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” he relates. At age 16, he walked up to the guys in the launch zone and asked if he could help out. They told him to come back when he was legal age at 18. He did, and after completing the requisites of assisting the shoot on three shows and a lengthy test at the local Fire Department, he had his pyro license. Coincidentally, Lantis was the company doing that show.
These days, Pierson does pyro mostly for his own enjoyment. “We [the Utah Pyrotechnics Association] have a bunker out in the desert,” he says, and there are multiple festivals and conventions throughout the West. Pierson recommends the Western Pyrotechnics Association’s classily named “Do It By the River” this coming October in Mesquite. “If you want to see fireworks, that’s the place to do it,” he says. “It’s pyros trying to impress pyros.”
He also has a selection of pyrotechnics literature and newsletters. Despite using “HE WHO HATH ONCE SMELT THE SMOKE IS NE’ER AGAIN FREE” as its banner slogan, parts of American Fireworks News read like a doctoral dissertation. There are article titles like “Atomic Line Spectra” and “Additional Considerations Regarding Oxidizers.”
Though the summer is certainly the busiest time for pyrotechnics, it is a year-round business. Lantis has a sales team that contacts cities and organizations around the country to solicit gigs. They’re also often contracted for theaters or concerts, to spice up corporate meetings with indoor, “cold burn” displays, and they do about 30 weddings per year, too. They’ve even done funerals.
In the hands of people who know that “cold burn” really means “not-quite-as-flesh-meltingly-hot burn,” pyro is relatively safe. But the fact remains, Pierson asserts, that “adults can turn into kids around fireworks.” The NFSA Website reports that 8,800 people were treated for fireworks-related accidents in 2002. And remember Michael Jackson’s hair and the Pepsi commercial?
So whether celebrating the declaration of “certain inalienable rights” or that fact that “This is the place,” put down the MGD and remember this admonition from Pierson: “There’s not much room for error on this shit.”