Hey! A response or… 4. Excellent.
Wordman: I’ve worked on a lot of neat displays; from close-proximity stage fireworks and fire/smoke/flash stuff through to some massive $55k, 25 minute pyromusicals. My favorite show every year is one we do in Nanton, Alberta; a town of 2 thousand an hour away from my city. We do it with a very close group of industry friends, it’s a pyromusical designed by one of the best designers in the Canadian industry (for free, as it’s his hometown) and we make a lot of really neat custom stuff for the display such as waterfalls, wheels, flash pots and set pieces. It’s always been one of the best shows I work on and is always something to look forward to.
As for a line of jargon, this is something you might hear on the Stampede grounds during our 11 night run there: ‘Hey Rip! Pass me three Sidecars, two 4" Cab Farf’s and some E and gaff. I need a bit of giftwrap too, if you’ve got any left in your Drey.’
Advice for amateurs: Please. Don’t. Modify. Family Pack. Fireworks. You have no idea how dangerous this stuff can really be, and cutting into the packaging is something most industry professionals with decades of experience won’t do because it’s a great way to lose a limb. Also, and this is the biggest piece of ignorance we always encounter, Do NOT hold Roman Candles in your hand!. They may not look like much, but those balls are mostly iron burning at upwards of 4000 degree Fahrenheit. Once they’re lit, they will NOT go out until the fuel is gone. If you’ve seen the aftermath of a small gas station candle blowing up and the ball entering a persons body, you’d respect that these things aren’t toys. Just because you’ve done it before doesn’t mean you’re not risking both your health and that of those around you.
Kambuckta: Australian pyrotechs are, in my very limited experience working with them, very similar to Canadian technicians. That’s to say, there’s a lot of insurance, a fairly structured licensing regimen and they tend to be quite safety conscious as a result. I’d assume that the smaller shows on big holidays work just like they do here. Normally, there is a large importer or ‘production company’ (sometimes the same, sometimes two companies working together) who will package and design the show, then ship it off to an individual shooter somewhere in their territory. For instance, the company I’ve worked with handles roughly ~150 shows on Canada Day, shipping throughout Western Canada. Over the decades, they’ve developed relationships with competent Supervisors throughout these provinces and know that if they send out a script and the product, at least something is going to go up in the air in a safe and controlled manner. The big boss usually picks out a cherry gig for himself; something where he’s got an 8 or 9 person crew and a separate cleanup crew to come back in the morning to sweep for any missed debris :P.
As far as insurance goes, Paul, I can only speak to the Canadian industry. The government of Canada mandates that anyone shooting a professional (Class B) display fireworks show in Canadian territory must have a minimum of $1,000,000 general liability insurance in case of accident, fire, injury or death. This is the minimum, and a lot of municipalities demand more. My hometown of Calgary, for instance, will usually demand a minimum of $5,000,000 general liability before you can get a permit for a Class B show. The premiums for these sorts of coverage are, as you can imagine, pretty prohibitive and have developed what a lot of people like to call a ‘Closed Industry’. Not a lot of start-up companies can pay $50k-$90k a year for insurance and then bring in the shows to pay for them. Those companies that are established, however, usually do fairly well.
This is somewhat unfortunate and largely due to the attitude toward fireworks in decades past. In the last 10 years, Fireworks is classified as one of the safest industries to work in, with less insurance and workman’s compensation claims than virtually any other industry in Canada. A large part of this is due to the self-cleansing nature of contract work. If word gets to a production company that some idiot backwoods ‘tech’ was removing the lift charge off a 6" round shell and dropping it in water with an electric match in it (this is a bad thing that you should probably never do :P), that ‘tech’ will not get another call to shoot a show. Likewise, companies with little to no concept of safety will either be shut down or will be slowly edged out of the market by smarter, safer companies. I’ve known the owner of the company I work for to call off a $50k show contracted by the Canadian government (the Parliament Canada Day show) because of unsafe winds that would take debris toward the crowd. He maintained his position on safety despite government officials, event organizers and random assholes screaming at him to ‘press the button’. This mentality is by no means pervasive, and my experience with American pyrotechnics varies wildly from exactly this mentality to something more of a ‘if no one dies, it’s not fireworks’ sort of attitude :P.
Career wise (and I’m going to lump Paul’s and Elvis’ answer in here too), there are a few paths and they can also depend on the industry you choose. Get ready, this might be a longer answer. I’ll answer both in terms of Display Pyrotechnics (big, outdoor fireworks you might see on NYE or the 1st and 4th of July) and in terms of Pyrotechnics (the industry term for close proximity and stage/sfx fireworks)
Technicians almost all start with volunteer work. Normally, you start as an Apprentice working under Level 1 and 2 supervisors on a variety of shows. I personally volunteered on about 8 or 9 shows before getting my first paid gig as a Supervisor, but I’ve known people who got an honorarium or something like that for their first show. It’s not hard to get on your first show, particularly since at the training course (offered by the Canadian government) there’s always going to be a representative from at least one of the companies taking numbers and handing out business cards. After that, it’s just a matter of wanting to spend your time and efforts busting ass and getting your foot in the door to make something of a name for yourself. In my first year, I drove ~2000km, worked for free where I would now make a couple grand and really proved that I was in it for the love of the industry, not the fame or the money. I now have an extremely close group of industry friends known collectively as ‘The Fireworks Family’ or ‘Tim’s Family’ and all of whom I would call ‘incredibly talented and creative folk’.
Anyhow, after you develop a rapport with the production company, you can take a few different routes in Display Pyro. One, and the one I’ve followed, you can stay in close contact with those who design the shows and make a good name for yourself as a reliable and competent technician who will usually be the first call when they need someone either as an assistant or a shooter. Two, you can apply to work full-time for the production company/importer. This is the route my best friend took, and has been employed with a well-known company for the last two years. This tends to be a lot more warehouse type work, with a lot of picking orders, packing them and shipping them off. He gets a lot more shows per year than I do (I average 8-10, he averages 15-20) and tends to shoot a lot more of his own, but he also makes a bit less than I do between fireworks and my day job and has to deal with a very sporadic income. Still, the adage has always been that ‘You don’t do fireworks for the love of money. You do fireworks for the love of blowing things up and getting paid for the privilege.’
Generally, particularly in Display, there’s a fairly definitive season. From April through December, there’s always going to be a corporate event or a wedding or a massive event like Canada Day or NYE. Other than that… you’re usually doing make-work as far as I know. I have a day job myself, but my best friend has been doing it for a couple years and says the winters (in Canada) tend to be a lot of downtime and not a lot of income. It’s like any seasonal work.
I didn’t really realize how much I talk when I’m trying to help educate about pyrotechnics… I really meant to go on a bit and talk about how one gets into close-prox and special effects, but I have no idea if anyone’s interested in it.