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Fireworks light up the sky during the Fourth of July celebration held at Old Mountain Field in Wakefield on Monday.

Mike Jones of West Kingston sat with his wife, Kim, on a staked-out section of lawn, and looked upward at the dark blue sky overhead illuminated only by the crescent moon.

Booms, crackles and sprays of red, green, white and orange debris from exploding fireworks soon painted the sky. In South Kingstown, the annual July 4 cacophony in the empyrean twilight had begun.

“I like to see what kinds of shapes come,” said Kim. Not far away stood Ashley Corbin, cell phone in hand, taking a picture of Mariah Little and David Rodriguez kissing against the backdrop of the bombardment.

“I like the colors,” said Little, while Corbin said she got excited from the booms one after the other echoing through the night air.

For all the bangs and bursts that last only about 30 minutes, the show takes months of planning.

A town’s out-of-pocket costs can go over $15,000 when adding in the salary costs of time contributed by fire, police, emergency medical, recreation department and other town officials involved in the staging.

A behind-the-scenes look shows a carefully choreographed delivery of the thrills.

“Although this is a decades-old event,” said Terry Murphy, long-time Recreation and Leisure Director in South Kingstown, “each year the planning and execution are approached as if it were the first time.”

“For many reasons, safety being the most important, we never get complacent with this process,” Murphy said.

A peek behind the scenes reveals focused efforts when playing with explosives to give safe, well-planned, secure — and visually pleasing — entertainment while attempting to avoid doing anything wrong.

Fireworks History

Before the Declaration of Independence was even signed, founding father John Adams envisioned fireworks as a part of the festivities. In a July 3, 1776, letter to his wife, Abigail Adams, he wrote that the occasion should be commemorated.

It would have “Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more,” he said.

The first commemorative Independence Day fireworks were set off on July 4, 1777.

The Pennsylvania Evening Post noted that in Philadelphia, “The evening was closed with the ring of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks …on the Commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.”

The paper noted that “everything was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal,” Slate re-told in its accounting.

That same year, fireworks also lit up the sky in Boston, where they were exhibited by Col. Thomas Crafts.

By 1783 a large variety of fireworks were available to the public. In 1784 one merchant offered a range of pyrotechnics that included “rockets, serpents, wheels, table rockets, cherry trees, fountains, and sunflowers.”

And so it has become a deeply-ingrained part of American tradition. However, these folks never required the planning, training, companies to set off fireworks, the detailed safety measures, permits and highly-coordinated show production found today in large fireworks displays.

Planning for the Event

While appreciative of the colonists’ spontaneity, officials from North Kingstown, Narragansett and South Kingstown all pointed out that the displays require months of planning by coordinated government departments.

Recreation offices are usually the hub for pulling together police, fire, emergency medical services, fireworks display companies, businesses involved or their representatives and many others.

“Few people really understand what goes on behind the scenes,” said South Kingstown’s Murphy.

At the starting gate, said Narragansett’s Fire Marshal Kevin Tuthill, are the mandated permits and inspections. Without them, no display can happen and he detailed those items on a to-do list in any town.  

“Most sites are known and have been used for years, but every once in a while, we get a new permit for a new location or a new private event,” he said.

The permit process involves several steps including the submission of a state fire marshal application for the outdoor fireworks display, insurance verification, proof of (fireworks) shooter competency and license verification.

In addition, a site map is needed to show the fallout zone. Fireworks require 70 feet of a safety circle around the launch area per inch of shell. For instance, a six-inch shell would require a 420-foot safety zone around the launch tube, he said.

Then there must be an inventory packing sheet with a list of all fireworks for the show, a state Department of Transportation permit to transport explosives and the U.S. Coast Guard marine permit if the launch platform is a barge.

Approvals are also needed from the fire and police departments, parks and recreation departments, as well as harbor masters, should any water venues be used.

North Kingstown Fire Chief Scott Kettelle said that in his town the fire department supplies a fire engine with two firefighters and a rescue vehicle with two firefighters on standby.

“Their responsibility is to protect the residents and properties within that neighborhood until additional resources arrive. Recognizing the traffic congestion and the number of people walking into the town beach area, our response is significantly affected by those challenges,” he said.

Fire marshals and an in-service fire engine are required to standby while the truck loaded with fireworks is offloaded onto the barge.

“Our fire boat with a fire marshal and boat crew standby is in the immediate area of the barge to ensure safety is enforced and fire codes are maintained before and during the shoot,” he said.

In Narragansett and South Kingstown, the fire departments follow similar procedures.

Police officials in each of the three towns also said that they put together detailed plans for security around the sites and for traffic flow from the large numbers of people attending.

Capt. John K. MacCoy Jr., of North Kingstown, noted in his planning report for this year’s July 4th celebration that 5,000 people were expected in the area around the town beach where fireworks and a concert were later held.

In North Kingstown, as well as in other towns, there needs to be traffic control for the streets, officers on foot patrol to handle any complaints, no-parking signs for certain areas and various security measures.

In Narragansett, an incident command system is used for organizing police protection. It is common in other towns, too.

It includes an action plan “so that department members can take initiative and solve rapidly developing problems in a manner consistent with the priorities of the plan,” explained Sean Corrigan, Narragansett Police Chief and head of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association.

Security of various kinds is one part of that plan, he said, adding that police also tie into a state operations center that notifies towns about any developing hazards or threats.

Knowing the site is very helpful when planning crowd-control and ensuring security measures are in place, police said.

“We have been working these details at this location for years so our plan is well established,” Corrigan said about the town beach and barge shoot-off site in Narragansett.

Emergency medical teams are also pulled together in all towns to assist with any health-related, as well as emergency matters that might arise, when large numbers of people gather.

Murphy illustrated the actions that town recreation officials — usually those in charge of coordinating these large public displays — take behind the scenes.

It starts long before July 4th and includes getting bids from fireworks display vendors and pulling together all the necessary people involved, she said.

“Recreation Department staff begin to meet in March to plan all aspects of the 4th of July event – besides the fireworks,” she said, noting it includes any entertainment that might be scheduled, concessions for food and drinks, sponsorships, if any.

By May, public safety personnel including police, fire and EMS are brought in to review in detail all safety protocols — then again a week or two prior to the event, she said.

Costs in South Kingstown run about $19,000, while in Narragansett the cost is about $30,000 with  the town paying about half of that thanks to a partnership with the nearby private Dunes Club.

In Narragansett, The Dunes Club hires the fireworks display company for the shoot-offs from a barge away from the beach area.

“Lighting the fireworks from the barge allows for a spectacular show to be seen by all no matter where you sit,” said Michelle Kershaw, Parks and Recreation director, about that town’s site location, which is similar to the one used in North Kingstown.

In some instances, such as in North Kingstown, the planning goes right down to “coordination with the band for the date and the appropriate ending of the performance (and) sendoff of the first shot in the sky, “ said Chelsey Dumas-Gibbs, Recreation Department director.

Behind the Curtain

Then there are the people behind the curtain — the hired hands who set off the fireworks.

Anthony Marson is vice president of Central Maine Pyrotechnics, which was chosen to put on this year’s July 4th display in South Kingstown.

It’s not just a matter of lighting fuses and running away before the whistling, booms and crackling reverberate through the sky and echo for miles around. That happens after all the pieces come together in the planning stages.

On show day, there is a program to follow for an opening, mid-show demonstration and finale, all lasting about 30 minutes or so, he explained.

“We have to first assemble individual racks, which have the tubes also known as mortars. The shells are loaded into them and the shells have lift charge,” he said,

That charge is ignited by a fuse that propels a ball portion of the shell into the sky. There’s a time limit to the burning and after a certain number of seconds the shell breaks open and fireworks are displayed in the sky in multiple colors, he said.

Shells come either in singular or flights to be launched, with multiple ones increasing in number and tied together in a “string.” Usually, there might be about three launched at once until the finale of 10 to a string are used.

“Once you start the finale, it all comes together sequentially,” he said, noting that in South Kingstown the finale has about 114 strings all blasted off within about three minutes.

Those setting off fireworks are required to wear long sleeves, long pants, hard hats, steel-toed shoes, gloves, glasses and ear plugs, said the 37-year-old whose military duty in Iraq and Afghanistan brought a lot of loud bombing and explosions.

“I did one show once without ear plugs because I didn’t bring enough sets and I promise you, I will never forget that again,” he said.

The town requires electronic firing. The other way is by hand, though, the electronic filing is “certainly a safe way of doing it, but it’s not as much not fun.,” the Maine National Guard veteran said with a laugh.

Lighting by hand means running up to a fuse, lighting it and running away as fast as possible to avoid being near the explosive when it launches in the air, he said.

Sometimes, a fireworks shell will break low and near where they are being launched.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had debris go down my back. It burns sometimes, but it’s all part of the fun of doing this,” Marson said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at  independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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