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Fire Wranglers



No summer is complete without the shimmering light display and resounding crack and boom soundtrack of fireworks.  Like taking in a baseball game or visiting the drive-in theater, settling back on a warm night while fireworks explode overhead is one of the sweetest and most cherished summer pastimes.  But weeks or even months before the show starts, before families spread their blankets on grassy lawns and couples sit hand in hand, unseen crews are hard at work preparing the ultimate summer spectacle.  They draw up diagrams, and they make calculations.  They choreograph and plan.  They toil in front of computer screens, and they drive trucks and haul equipment in the midsummer heat.  They get hot and sweaty, and then: they get to play with fire.

Phil Ramsey, owner of Ramsey Pyrotechnics, is a farmer by trade, but fireworks stole his heart back in the 70s, when he was volunteering with the Jaycees for a local Independence Day festival.  Now, 40 years later, he works his magic for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Conner Prairie, the Indianapolis Colts, and the Indianapolis Indians.

Ramsey Pyrotechnics is a local company that puts on the firework displays for the Indians, Colts and ISO.
  • Ramsey Pyrotechnics is a local company that puts on the firework displays for the Indians, Colts and ISO.

Ramsey compares his work to visiting a firing range. "They're both loud, noisy, controlled explosions, both trying to achieve a goal by directing that power," he says.  "But with fireworks, instead of trying to hit a target, you're creating an artistic presentation.  I've owned guns most of my life and spent time in the military, but I much prefer to shoot fireworks rather than weapons.  It's very satisfying.  When we've put on a good performance and the crowd cheers when we're done, it's a great feeling." 

It's probably a given that, for a pyrotechnics company, safety always has to be the number one priority.  There's a lot of paperwork to tackle before Ramsey gets to the fun part.  But after the permits are filed and the insurance certificates are in order, Ramsey can turn his attention to priority number two--creating the most breathtaking and exhilarating performance he possibly can.  As with anyone who takes pride in his craft, his standards are high and particular.  "When you look at a round chrysanthemum, you shouldn't see a bunch of stray stars; it should be a perfect round ball," he explains.  "A ring shell should be a ring, not just a loose gaggle.  The integrity of the pattern is important to us.  So is the purity of the color.  In the last 20 years, there's been a repository of innovation of new color formulas--a deeper, darker red, for example, or a deeper blue.  We keep abreast of that and try to put all of that into our product."

One part artist and one part mad scientist, firework designers need the best of both worlds. The colors Ramsey mentions are created by chemical formulas in the shell.  For example, copper burns blue and strontium nitrate burns red.  Chemistry isn't the only discipline that comes into play.  When choreographing displays, the crew also has to calculate the lift time, which is the time it takes for a shell to reach a specific height, and the burst time, the time it takes for a shell to explode and then fade.  This timing becomes even more essential when a show is choreographed to music.  Crews also have to take into account wind speed and weather conditions.  It takes a considerable amount of technical finesse to properly put together an entertaining--and safe--show, but the results always seem effortless.

The Zambelli crew works to set up nearly 8,000 shells over five days for the big show on top of the Regions Bank building.
  • The Zambelli crew works to set up nearly 8,000 shells over five days for the big show on top of the Regions Bank building.

No one else in the field would be surprised that Ramsey got bit by the fireworks bug.  John Maxwell, a crew chief for Zambelli Fireworks, can relate.  "It gets into your blood," he says.  "You can't let go."  And he would know.  His first show was in 1969, and since 1987, he's been in charge of the Donatos Downtown Freedom Blast, Indy's spectacular 4th of July fireworks display.  You know the one.  Launched from the roof of the RegionsTower, it's the biggest fireworks display in Indiana and can be seen ten miles away.

It probably goes without saying that the Freedom Blast is a colossal event.  Preparation and planning begins six months in advance.  The shells come from all over the world, from places such as China, Japan, Brazil, Spain, France, and Italy.  Set up takes five days, and when it's all said and done, Maxwell and his crew will have unloaded 7,800 pounds of equipment, run 10 miles of wire, and shot off 3,500 shells. 

The Freedom Blast presents the additional challenge of being choreographed to music, which is broadcast over three radio stations during the display.  Emmis Communications, who manages the event, provides Maxwell with a soundtrack, and Maxwell frames his show around these selections.  Zambelli is a large enough company that they can afford the expensive equipment used to digitally choreograph a show to music.  The computer program helps to more precisely calculate lift time and burst time, enabling the crew to exactly synchronize the show to the soundtrack, and thus allowing the audience to sing along and tap their toes to catchy patriotic tunes that accent the visual experience of the fireworks.

John Maxwell of Zambelli Fireworks has been choreographing the Indianapolis fireworks since 1987.
  • John Maxwell of Zambelli Fireworks has been choreographing the Indianapolis fireworks since 1987.

Maxwell explains that some companies sell predetermined packages for a set dollar amount, but he doesn't care for that method.  "It's like buying from a catalog," he says.  He prefers to work from scratch, starting with the finale and working his way backwards to make each show unique.  He's passed his passion on to his family and is lucky enough to have his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson all on his crew, giving them the perfect opportunity to see him in his element.  Maxwell reveals that fireworks season is when he comes out of his shell--if you'll pardon the pun.  "I am a very quiet person," he says, "but this is the time of year that I shine.  My family says I change around the 4th of July."

In a business where success is gauged by oohs and aahs, it seems that there's no shortage of job satisfaction.  Both Ramsey and Maxwell love fireworks because they love the joy that it brings to others.   "We know we've put on a good show when we can hear the crowd's response even on top of the Regions Bank building," Maxwell says. 

Believe me when I say that, come the 4th, one of those awestruck reactions will be mine.

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