If you've ever watched a Fourth of July fireworks show, you may have wondered who puts the show together. There are actually a relatively small number of companies that each put on shows all over the country. I had the chance to talk with Doug Taylor, the president and CEO of one of the larger fireworks display companies in the United States, Zambelli Fireworks, and ask him some questions about the industry.
[Related: How to Become a Fireworks Show Designer]
How did you get involved in the fireworks business?
The Zambelli family has a long history in the fireworks industry. We were incorporated in 1960, but it really goes back to about 1893 when the ancestors of the founders of the company came over from Italy and brought their tradition of fireworks with them. The founder of the company died in 2003, other family members continued to run company for a while, but with age and family obligations and things like that, they decided that they needed to do something different. Just over four years ago, I was hired to come in and run the company. They didn't need better designers or better fireworks technicians, or anything like that. What they needed was somebody really to run the business. That's how I got involved.
How has business been in the last few years. The economy has been in rough shape and municipalities have found their budgets stretched, has that affected your business?
It has. The year 2008 was a bad year. In 2009, with the economy hit, we certainly saw some communities backing off. This year, there are still some communities where they had to cancel their programs. I know I can think of one where they had to lay off a bunch of policemen. They said, you know, "We can't lay off policemen and, at the same time, spend money on fireworks." What we are seeing, though, in many cases, is that private organizations have decided that it's too important to have fireworks for the community to let it go. They have found ways to make it happen. If you think about a small town of 30,000 people and they do a $15,000 show, you know, you're spending 50 cents per person to have a good community event. That's pretty inexpensive when you think about it that way and people have really stepped up.
Last year was better than the year before. We're going to grow nicely this year, and I anticipate that next year, we'll grow again.
What do you aim for when designing a fireworks display?
The point is to take the music that, in some cases, is provided by the customer, and sometimes we produce the music, and combine the feeling, the emotion, the impact of the music with the impact of the light and color as well as the sound of the fireworks.
What we really like to focus on is the intensity of the event. Spectators like to have the sky full with fireworks, so we tend to focus on shows that are much more intense, that use much more product in them over a short period of time. People don't really know how long a show is as long as it is really exciting for them.
A typical show for a community is probably 15 minutes. Certainly there are shows that are longer, you'll see them. We have one customer down in Florida that really likes a long show and that's what they've done every year, and typically it will run 40or 45 minutes -- which is different than what we typically suggest, but that's what they like and that's what we do.
This Fourth of July, I noticed that on your website that you have a number of shows listed across the country. What's the most shows you can do in one day? Is that your limit?
No, no. In fact, that's a very short list. Between July 1 and July 5, and it's mostly July 1 through July 4, because there are very few being shot on July 5, we're going to shoot about 500 shows this year.
Which is the biggest show that you'll be doing this Fourth of July?
Interestingly, the largest show that we'll be doing this year is a private show, and we do it every year. The largest [public Fourth of July] shows are really Phoenix, Dayton, there are several in Colorado that are very large. We shoot for the Colorado Rockies and the Colorado Rapids, which is the [Major League Soccer] team. There are some other communities in Colorado that are large. We're shooting a large show July 2 in Philadelphia at Penn's Landing.
What kind of licensing is involved in putting on a professional fireworks display?
It really varies state by state. I won't go into the long story about how complicated it is. I mean, we have guys who have been fingerprinted by five different groups to get licensed in different places. There's Homeland Security requirements and all this other stuff. All of the people that work for us, go through a background check by the ATF, which, I believe, part of that check is an FBI background check.
States vary. For example, the state of Pennsylvania does not have licensing requirements. The state of Virginia is just this year putting licensing and testing program in. North Carolina put in a license and testing program last year. Kentucky will be putting one in for professional fireworks, it looks like, in 2012. There's a basic core of requirements, but there are also local requirements.
Can you compare the safety of attending a professional fireworks show to lighting off consumer level fireworks in the back yard?
I would never tell people not to use consumer fireworks. The problem is that people don't use consumer fireworks, in some cases, as safely as they should. They do things they shouldn't. States have put regulations on the types of consumer fireworks that can be used so that some of the more dangerous things have been taken off the market.
Consumers can be safe, but they really need to follow the regulations. I think that, on average, the professional show is going to be much safer than a consumer fireworks situation. That's really because we train all the time, our guys are professionals, in many cases this is the way they make their living year round. They have to be safe all the time.
It's really a controlled environment. You know exactly what's happening on the site.
Right. Right. I mean, you think about the 3-year-old that's sitting with mom and she's watching the fireworks that are being set off by dad, and she jumps up and runs over to dad. We have secure perimeters to make sure that doesn't happen. I know nobody is going to risk themselves, their families, or their friends unnecessarily, but as you say, and I think you said it right, the professional fireworks environment is really much more controlled to ensure a very high level of safety.
I put my trust in the fact that if it's a consumer product and the consumer uses it correctly, it will be safe. You can't indict the consumer industry. They are working very hard to make sure their product is safe.