Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, June 21, 1999
Fireworks: there's magic in the air
By Andrea Vargo
How do they do that?
Fourth of July fireworks bring out the kid in all of us. We stare in fascination at a night sky exploding with color and pattern, hearing the bang and pop of the shells.
Greg Glavan, a Howard Lake dentist, has always been drawn to the magic of fireworks.
He became a licensed pyrotechnic in order to enjoy the challenge of creating those wonderful displays we enjoy on the Fourth of July and other special occasions.
"I was always interested in fireworks when I lived on the Iron Range. We always had them available to us over the Fourth," he said.
He has a big family on the Range, and they always got together and shared all the fireworks they had purchased, he said.
Before Glavan became a dentist, he worked for 3M in its medical/surgical division.
"There was an autoclave tape that changed color from white to black, once the product had gone through the autoclave. Unfortunately it contained lead, and the federal government is not crazy about anything that contains lead," he said.
Glavan was involved in the chemical research for another chemical combination that would respond in a similar fashion to the heat and pressure of the autoclave.
A personal incident over some sparklers ignited his interest in becoming a licensed pyrotechnic, just so he could legally shoot off fireworks.
The Pyrotechnics Guild International, Inc. is an organization of professional people and hobbists.
Glavan took the guild's fireworks certification course and became licensed in Minnesota.
He is also a member of Northern Lighters Pyrotechnics (NLP) Minnesota's oldest non-profit professional organization, since 1993.
The group puts on professional displays for communities and civic organizations.
Since it is a non-profit organization, all the labor is volunteer. The community is only responsible for the cost of the fireworks and city and county permits.
Glavan has been a part of more than 100 fireworks shows with NLP, and there has never been a major (safety) incident, he said.
Extreme precautions are taken in the transport of the shells, and the driver of the truck must have a hazardous materials addendum to his commercial license, noted Glavan.
The truck has to be marked with a sign that shows it to be carrying explosives, as well. The shells must be properly packed, he said.
"The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms requires us to carry a detailed manifest for explosives that lists every shell in the truck," he explained.
The manifest and an insurance policy for $5 million are in the truck with the driver at all times, and Glavan said everyone is extremely careful about complying with all the state and federal laws and regulations.
There are people on the grounds the night of the show who actually do nothing except count the number of shells that explode, so that number can be matched with the number of shells at the start of the show.
Any that did not explode are searched for diligently in the dark with flashlights on into the wee hours of the morning.
Usually a local fire department will do another search at daybreak. Every shell must be accounted for, said Glavan.
About 12 hours are spent by the volunteers to set up a fireworks display. All the shells in the finale must be fused together in a chain. The mortars have to be dug into the ground.
Not all of the volunteers are licensed to set the fireworks off, and they do other things.
Some crews assemble the fireworks, some load the shells or spot and count as they detonate. Yet other volunteers act as security. It would be a disaster if someone came in and set them off prematurely, Glavan said.
There is plenty of work to go around, and more volunteers are always welcome, he said.
"Of course, the new member has to be able to pass a background check by a private investigator," he explained.
How does it do that
Glavan shared some of his vast knowledge of fireworks, from identifying a shell's origin to what makes the colors.
"You can tell an oriental shell. It explodes in a circle. American or Italian shells are noise producers with multiple effects," he said.
Barium causes the green colors you see, and sodium makes a yellow color, Glavan explained.
The combination of chemicals determines whether the shell strobes, flickers, or flashes.
There are many kinds of shells, and each has its unique properties.
For instance, an aerial shell has two basic groups of elements. The lift charge is responsible for propelling the shell into the air, and the second group produces the display.
Once the shell is in the air, the ignition fuse, which is still burning, lights the time fuse, which extends through the shell wall.
When the time fuse burns through to the inside of the shell, the burst charge is ignited.
The burst charge lights the stars and generate combustion gases inside the shell casing, increasing the internal pressure of the shell.
When the shell casing bursts, the burning stars are propelled outward in a display of light.
The fireworks we see at a professional display are good, said Glavan, but not as good as the ones that are at the pyrotechnic convention competitions.
"Those are some big ticket items, and they are the inventions of the members of the guild," he said.
Glavan and other guild members are searching for the perfect blue strobe stars. This is a difficult color to get, and a lot of research is being done on it, he said.
So now, when you peer into the sky on the Fourth of July, you will have an idea of what is happening.
Enjoy it for Glavan. He is too busy doing his job safely
to even look up.
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