Detailed preparation ensures dazzling fireworks show
By Lauren Jette
When families have enjoyed all the festivities, food and fun offered at the Independence Day Spectacular on July 2 at City Park, and settle in for a 30-minute fireworks show, American Fireworks Manager Stephen Davis will see all his hard work and planning pay off with the ‘ooos’ and ‘ahhs’ of delight from the crowd.
“I enjoy, really the whole process,” Davis said.
“I love going and getting to build the show, shoot the show and just having people have a good time. I take pride in trying to give them a good show and give them something to enjoy. It’s neat, just watching them go off.”
Work on the fireworks show started a long time ago, and takes a lot more work than what most people see, Davis said.
“First I met with (The Independent Managing Editor) Shelly (Wilkison) and the fire marshal and the police department just to look at the site, find out where all the crowd is going to be and then look at the area and find the safest spot to shoot the show where it will be in the right range for fallout, and then in the hazmat,” Davis explained.
“You just figure out how big a shell you’re going to shoot, and then there’s a table with that and you have to measure out. I made a map with a radius.
“For that show, with the size shells we’re shooting, you have to be 210 feet is the fallout area, and then you have to double that, so 420 (feet) is the hazmat area and people can’t be closer than that while the show is going off.”
From there, Davis took the measurements and made a map diagram with the outlines for the safety radius.
“Depending on the area, sometimes if you’re shooting in the city, they require a permit for that. You have to pay the permit fee and get the permit. The fire marshal and law enforcement has to be notified about what we’re doing.”
Once that was completed and the permit approved in Liberty Hill, Davis went back to the American Fireworks super store in Bastrop, and began building the show.
“We have trailers that we put the shows on, we shoot them off a trailer because it’s safer,” Davis said.
“We shoot them all electronically, so we’re not out there having to light the fireworks, we have boxes where we push buttons. We wire everything in and push buttons and that’s what shoots the show off.”
Every firework used in the show has to be properly laid out on the trailers and secured for safety.
“All the products that we put in, we put it on boards and screw it into the trailer floor, that way everything is secure,” Davis explained.
“Anything that shoots won’t tip over, so it’s all screwed into the floor, so it’s secure. Then you have to wire everything into the control boxes. It takes a little while. For a show this size, it will probably take us about 20 hours, 10 hours a trailer, man-hours.
“We have finale boxes that we have to load shells in for the show and I think we’re doing six finale boxes, so you have to put the shells in and wire them,” Davis added. “We have quickmatch that we have to put the fuses on and wrap up, that way when you hit the button, you have 50 shells in a box that are going to go off all at one time. That quickmatch burns real quick so that all six of those boxes, which is 300 shells will go off in about 10 seconds, so it gives a really big finale at the end.”
Davis, a former high school football coach at Westlake, Austin and Kyle Lehman high schools, shoots between 30 and 35 fireworks shows a year, between weddings, Independence Day and other big events, such as the Austin Rodeo and fireworks show.
“Since Fourth of July falls on a Monday, we have a lot of people doing shows on that Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Probably those three days, we have close to 30 shows that we’re going to be shooting,” Davis said.
After retiring from coaching, Davis was asked by American Fireworks owner Chester Davis (no relation) to come on and help run the business. Davis had experience running a fireworks stand as a fundraiser, so he agreed.
“I had to go and take the state test for my pyro-tech license and take the state test for hazmat and the license to be able to transport the hazmat, so I had to go get all that,” Davis said. “And having a prosthetic, I had to take another test to make sure I could handle all that.”
Davis’ right leg was amputated above the knee in 2011. His leg was damaged in an accident when he was 19, but didn’t require amputation until an infection occurred and four surgeries couldn’t save it.
“I really don’t have any limitations. I do almost everything,” Davis said.
“I didn’t know all the red tape. I had to go through the Department of Transportation in Washington D.C. sent somebody from Houston. I had to do a drive test with them just to make sure I could do everything and haul hazmat to the stores and deliver it too, so I had to perform for them. I thought it was kind of interesting.”
As for the show for the Liberty Hill Spectacular, Davis thinks he has put together a crowd-pleasing combination of fireworks.
“I know Liberty Hill, everything is purple,” Davis said. “We’re going to try and get purple in there. We have a lot of really good cakes, I call them. We have a lot of really good cakes in this show. A lot of them are new this year, so I know there will be a lot of really good things people haven’t seen as far as breaks and design. I’ve gotten to shoot off quite of few of them in some of the shows I’ve done in weddings and the Austin Rodeo, we had some in there.
“Between the two trailers there will probably be more than 100 500-ram cakes and each one of the cakes has between 9 shots and 35 is the most.”
Or more simply put, “There will be a lot of fireworks,” Davis summed up with a laugh.
For those concerned about the debris from the show, Davis said the company will return to the park on July 3 to clean up from the event, being careful to leave nothing behind.