Explosions in the sky dance to music

Fireworks will be loaded into and then launched from plastic tubes buried in boxes of sand for the Red, White and Blues fireworks show July 4 at Celebration Park. - Courtesy photo
Fireworks will be loaded into and then launched from plastic tubes buried in boxes of sand for the Red, White and Blues fireworks show July 4 at Celebration Park.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Don’t miss: Red, White and Blues

The show may only last 20 minutes, but preparation for Federal Way’s annual Fourth of July fireworks display starts a year in advance.

For the past six years, Fireworks Entertainment has put on the city’s annual Red, White and Blues fireworks show on July 4. This year will be no different. But coordinating a fireworks show is not as simple as one may think.

Orders for the fireworks are placed a year ahead, Fireworks Entertainment pyrotechnician Gregg Farnsworth said. Some of the materials the company uses are produced domestically, while others are made in China, then sent to the United States.

Once the shells are received, employees get busy stacking the explosives in bunkers and crafting proposals for upcoming shows, Farnsworth said. About 91 percent of the company’s clientele are return customers, he said.

“We know what they like and don’t like,” Farnsworth said.

Entertainment Fireworks and its clients meet to discuss space limitations and what type of show — choreographed, simple, extravagant, high altitude — the company will do.

Federal Way puts on a choreographed show. The Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services department submits music to Fireworks Entertainment. The music is reflective of popular culture, meets a variety of interests, has a positive message, carries a good beat for fireworks choreography and includes some patriotic music, said Mary Faber, Recreation and Cultural Services superintendent.

A choreographer, oftentimes Ken Julian, then listens to that music and dreams up a sequence of colorful bursts.

“He listens to every note,” Farnsworth said.

Julian has been in the fireworks business more than 15 years. Relying on his knowledge of customers’ preferences, explosion times and height limits of all fireworks his company has on hand, Julian creates the layout for the show Federal Way residents will view once the sun sets on July 4.

Julian listens to the upbeats and downbeats of the music. He listens for tempo changes and opportunities to wow the crowd.

“He knows exactly what each shell will do,” Farnsworth said. “While he listens to the music, he says ‘On this downbeat I want something special.’”

A few days prior to the show, Fireworks Entertainment employees will pack the fireworks shells into a truck and transport them to their destination. Extra care is taken to prevent an explosion. The shells are packed in static-proof bags, then put in specially designed cardboard boxes, Farnsworth said.

“There’s always the risk of explosion in fireworks,” he said. “Our big thing is safety first. We want to be around to do this more than once.”

Set up for the show begins July 3. Scott Steinmetz, a licensed pyrotechnician, is generally in charge of this aspect of the show. Steinmetz is a civil engineer by day and a self-described fireworks hobbyist by night.

He and his crew prepare oversized wood boxes full of sand. The shells are placed in plastic tubes within the sandboxes, then wired to a control board on the day of the show. They are numbered according to the choreographer’s desired order. When Steinmetz’s crew is ready, a current will be sent to each firework, beginning an upward propulsion and ending in an explosion of colorful dancing sparks.

Federal Way’s show will feature approximately 1,200 fireworks, Steinmetz said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: or (253) 925-5565.

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