CBS Local: So that leads me to my next question, which I think you just may have answered. What special challenges does the New York display present?
Souza: Certainly there are numerous challenges with any fireworks show. But in New York, in this particular venue, the Hudson River is very wide. It has weather issues, current issues, traffic issues. It’s a major waterway. The Coast Guard does a spectacular job in working with the Macy’s team to help to coordinate how we’re going to access the river at a certain time, allow thousands of boats as spectators to come to certain areas yet not close the entire waterway for an entire evening. It’s a very large national/international waterway. Commerce must go on. They do a spectacular job.
And that’s really a challenge to take these fireworks, get them from wherever they may come from around the world, deal with all the regulatory issues and agencies that are involved to get to that point, assemble a crew of 40 people from around the country that are experts — some have worked on this show for over 25 years. Get them all assembled and pull this off all within the course of about 10 days, given weather issues and humidity and wind and rain and whatever comes your way. You have a finite issue with July 4th happening at exactly one time. You can’t change it. You have to be there. It has to be done. And you have so many hours to accomplish that. With all the design and all the planning that goes in, it allows those 40 people to pull this off in the limited amount of time and on a limited amount of space.
CBS Local: It sounds like a logistical nightmare.
Souza: Well it is. It’s very challenging. I’ve been involved with the Macy’s show since 1983. I worked on it with my father when I was much younger. It was one of the first big shows I worked on. Just over the years, gaining experience and working on other logistically challenging events. We just did the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. And it was a very large show. For the first time, fireworks were actually fired off the bridge and up and down the towers. We had exactly one hour of bridge closure time before the show and during the show. And that’s the only time that one lane was closed. So to pull all that off… and that is logistically challenging as well. Doing shows in other countries and other cities that have other issues. Each venue has its own issues.
CBS Local: I saw some of the pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge show on your website, and they’re amazing.
Souza: Pulling that off pushed and taxed every element of our technical team, to be able to do some of the digital dancing things. There were 13 computers that all had to be synchronized to do their part in the big performance. The computers had to receive the code. And they had their little segments that they had to do. But when they all went off, it looked like one big event. That’s similar to what we’ve done with the Macy’s show. The technology has developed over the years largely from our experience working with the Macy’s show.
CBS Local: How exactly do you activate a firework?
Souza: Each of the 40,000 shells that will be in this year’s show has an electronic match, or an ignitor. Each shell will then have to be placed within its own mortar or tube, that will range in size from two inches in diameter up to 10 inches in diameter. So each aerial shell will be placed into a mortar. And these mortars with have to be strategically placed about the barge, in the area that will allow it to create the effect we’ve designed in the sky. So once the aerial shell is placed in the mortar, that electronic ignitor will then be connected to various [computer] terminals throughout the barge that will assign it an address. So the computer will then recognize that address. So say it’s position 1A, position 3A might be in the center, position 4A. So if you wanted all the A’s to fire at one time, you could have that. And in some cases in the Macy’s show, we’ll have over 300 aerial shells firing within a one-second period…
Then the computer has a program in it. It picks up a timed code that’s synchronized to the music. So when the musical score is played over the radio or television, that score is also synchronized to the computers on the barge — two computers on each barge. When it picks up that signal, it has a synchronizing time clock, an internal clock that will run, it will stay with the music. … At this given hundredth of a second, it’s going to release power to whatever address we tell it to. So those addresses will then all launch at a maybe a certain angle or maybe all straight up or maybe crisscrossing in the sky and create some of the lower-level effects before they make the burst up above. So that’s it.
There will be about five miles of wire on each barge. And that’s what takes part of the time of that 10 days for those 40 people is that they have to strategically locate all of this equipment, secure it, load each of the 40,000 aerial shells, connect two wires off of each of the aerial shells into terminals, which will then be connected to the two computers, which will recognize the address where they’re located. And that’s how the show is pulled off… There are four barges this year, with two computers on each barge.
CBS Local: What special safety precautions do you have to take?
Souza: Well there are a lot. From the manufacturer’s part of it, there are lots of things to be careful of. Static electricity is always your enemy. Using the electronic match — or the ignitor — has been something that has really allowed us to launch fireworks without having to stand next to them with a highway flare, as you might see at some small-town shows. There are shows that are fired like that all across the country. And we do everything we can to make that as safe as you can. But we are now firing shells, with hundreds of them a second, that you couldn’t do with a highway flare. So the ignitor allows us to have more design occur and makes it more technologically amazing to watch. But it is also one of the more dangerous aspects of it, because basically you’ve added a match head into an explosive device. So if it’s dropped, if it’s dragged, somehow that match head gets enough energy — whether it be a force or heat or electronics — it will make it go off. So you have to be very careful in the management and handling of each firework item.
In addition to that, you’ve got lots of stuff all over a barge, lots of equipment in a finite space. The barges are almost 300 feet long and 40 feet wide, but by the time we get to July 4, it’s pretty well loaded up, with almost every space full of fireworks. So you have to watch where you’re walking and stepping over things, and make sure things are secured down so wind or another explosion of another device doesn’t knock something over. All of the pyrotechnicians are licensed pyrotechnicians. They have a certificate of fitness from the New York City fire department. We work in close cooperation with the New York fire department. They’re always there to help us and work together with us to make this as safe as possible.