Guest Column - September 2022
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inPERSPECTIVE / EVENT PLANNING

How to Produce a Great Fireworks Display

By John Prue


As parks and recreation professionals, have we ever considered ourselves a "producer" of events? My guess is YES! At some point in our career, we will be involved in various events and some of our events may just include fireworks. In many cases, our agencies or the buyers merely secure a budget for the fireworks, follow procurement processes and then award the contract to a fireworks vendor to produce the entire show—typically offering limited guidance to the vendor, other than some local restrictions and rules. I believe that we as buyers should take full control of fireworks displays and personally produce the show, which can be one of the most impactful experiences that an organization can offer its community.

To put this in perspective, when you say "fireworks" it generally excites people or triggers some form of positive reaction. Although the Chinese developed them over 1,000 years ago, fireworks have been commonly used as a form of celebration around the world since about the 13th century. Today, they are a big part of many of our community events, such as 4th of July and New Year's Eve celebrations, as well as a multitude of seasonal festivals. No matter your age, race or economic status, almost everyone loves to gather around to see a great fireworks display.

So what can you do to become a true producer of a great fireworks display for your community?

Do Your Homework

First, you need to understand a little about the science and the types of fireworks that are out there. Fireworks are made out of an oxidizing agent, reducing agent and coloring agent, along with binders and regulators. These items mixed together create what we know as the basic firework. Mixtures of certain chemical compounds will make up specific colors. For instance, calcium chloride and calcium sulfate, when combined, will generate an orange color, and sodium nitrate and cryolite will create a yellow flash of light.

Additionally, a buyer should also understand the varieties of firework shapes that will greatly affect the end product within a fireworks display. Some of the popular fireworks shapes are the Peony, Crossette, Chrysanthemum and Comet, just to name a few. All of them have a very distinctive look and will be the basis of any proposal you receive from a qualified pyrotechnics company.

There is plenty to cover about the science of fireworks, as well as the many terms and definitions. The American Pyrotechnics Association (APA) has a variety of resources, which can help you better understand the technical side of fireworks.

To complete your homework, you will need to explore the numerous pyrotechnic companies that can support your needs. Search for companies that have strong industry credentials, produce a variety of displays and have a long list of experienced and qualified staff. There are too many variables in firework displays to not look at pyrotechnic companies with a solid resume.

Request for Proposal

Once you have a basic understanding and a number of qualified sources, you will need a solid RFP, which will dictate your requirements and expectations. First of all, be descriptive in what you are looking for in terms of date, the event and even be specific on the locations and other parameters that might impact the size of shells, or how the shells will be fired.

Some questions to ponder: Is it a traditional aerial show? Will it be electronically fired? Will it be choreographed and set to music? What is the budget?

Yes, the typical way to bid a fireworks display is to declare your budget upfront. Your budget will drive the length of show, and that is where agencies or "buyers" sometimes make mistakes. They may not have the budget for a 30-minute display, but they demand it as a part of the RFP.

Another key to your RFP is to have clear evaluation factors laid out. Since you declared your budget, you will be evaluating the proposals for the best value. Things like size of shells, types of shells, company reputation and experience are all key factors in getting the best value for the money. Too many people rely on sheer number of shells with little regard to types and size. This can be very deceiving unless you are familiar with the science of fireworks.

Bottom line, a good RFP will help you generate a good pyrotechnics partner.

Customization

Once you have established your vendor, you have the ability to work within their proposal and customize your own show. Typically, a fireworks display has at least three parts: opener, middle segment, and closing or finale. However, most fireworks vendors allow you to move certain product or shells around to highlight certain portions of your display. An example would be to craft in a "false finale," which is basically a portion of the show where you want the audience to believe it is the end of the show, but in fact, you're coming back with something even bigger and better. When using displays choreographed to music, various songs can lend themselves to these "false finales." When it comes to music, work with your vendor and pick the songs yourself—don't just "approve" the song list. This is a good way to take ownership of your show and help to control tempo and, ultimately, your audience's response.

As mentioned, length of the show is always a concern, and you have the ability to help stretch the show using certain techniques. In displays choreographed to music, sometimes dramatic pauses based on the song can help create anticipation. In past displays at the Naval Station Great Lakes in Lake County, Ill., we have regularly played a segment of a particular song without any fireworks going off to create that dramatic effect. If used correctly, this technique allows you to use more "product," or shells at different times of the show for a stronger impact. Another way to lengthen the show is using selected narration throughout. Narration allows you to set the tone or theme, get messages out to the audience, and importantly, get some kudos out to your agency and corporate sponsors. Using these methods can easily add five minutes to a show. If done creatively, these methods have zero impact on the audience's experience.

Finale

To successfully produce a great fireworks display, you need to be knowledgeable of the whole process. You also need to be willing to take control of critical elements, while still working closely with your pyrotechnic partner. With this acquired knowledge about fireworks and the ability to customize your own show, you are certainly on the road to a great fireworks display! RM



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
With more than 35 years of experience, John D. Prue is the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) program analyst for Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. He provides analytical and evaluative duties to assess the overall effectiveness of MWR programs at 14 installations across a nine-state area. In 2012, his MWR team won the National Gold Medal Award, the first military base ever to do so. Prue is also an elected member of the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration (AAPRA).