A curtain of sparks suddenly surrounds the band during a stadium rock concert. A fireworks display draws huge crowds at a city park. An entire office building appears to be consumed in a giant fireball during an exciting movie scene. All of these fiery events and more are collectively known as pyrotechnics. Professionals who work around fireworks and other explosive devices are known as pyrotechnitians.
Many people associate pyrotechnics with outdoor fireworks displays, but that is only one aspect of the field of pyrotechnics. Fireworks are definitely one of the oldest forms of pyrotechnics, dating back to the discovery of explosive powders by both China and Italy during the Middle Ages. The Chinese may have created the first practical explosive shells and bullets, but the Italians used these pyrotechnics for artistic expression. Many modern pyrotechnitians belong to families with a long tradition of firework production.
While many of us are familiar with the fireworks aspect of pyrotechnics, the main source of income for pyrotechnitians is in the entertainment industry. Pyrotechnitians work closely with stunt coordinators on films to create realistic explosions and controlled fires. The pyrotechnics involved in film making could range anywhere from the small explosive charges used to simulate gunshots to giant bags of explosive chemicals for a large all-consuming fireball. Trained pyrotechnitians must be able to create a convincing explosive effect, but also maintain control over what may appear to be uncontrollable.
Pyrotechnics are also used extensively in musical concerts and television studios. Special chemicals are used to reduce smoke or lingering sparks. Stage pyrotechnics add a feeling of excitement when timed with a dramatic piece of music. In order to achieve this effect, pyrotechnitians often wire electronically-controlled charges directly to a master board. When the performers reach a safe position, a trained special effects person activates a switch and the desired curtain of sparks or explosion takes place.
Most working pyrotechnicians belong to highly selective labor unions and must be licensed to perform every aspect of pyrotechnics. Entry into the field is very limited unless one is willing to go through years of apprenticeship and journeyman training. Fireworks factories may hire workers for on-the-job training, but the work can be very dangerous and some chemicals may be toxic. The most important thing to keep in mind when using consumer pyrotechnics (Class C fireworks) is to respect their power.