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SoBo’s fireworks take on a local flavor

South Boston News / July 03, 2019
There are not very many pyro-technicians in Virginia, so it is rare for a town to say that their Fourth of July show is done locally. South Boston is one of those lucky towns.

The town has hired Virginia Skypainters, a company owned and operated by longtime Halifax resident Ryan Francisco, to create a fifteen minute display that will launch out of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center’s parking lot.

“Creating a fireworks show is like buying a vehicle: you can get a vehicle with all the bells and whistles or you can just get the basic model,” Francisco said. “The fireworks that we’re laying for South Boston are all professional grade.”

Town officials had contacted Francisco nearly a year and a half in advance. Francisco said that there was a shortage of pyro-technicians for the fourth, and that he had already turned away several other sponsors. He has worked closely with the town to design a custom display that will meet the fifteen minute expectation and remain affordable.

“When I discuss a display with a sponsor, we talk about how much they would like to spend and how long it should be,” Francisco said.

Fireworks displays are expensive. South Boston town manager Tom Raab said that the fireworks display would run the Town nearly $10,000.

“It’s not a cheap effort for 15 minutes of ka-boom,” Raab said.

Besides the cost, there are also safety restrictions that limit what a locality can do with its fireworks display. Fireworks that appear in the show are primarily shells launched from mortars. According to Virginia’s fire marshal, there must be 100 feet of clear space per one inch of diameter of the shells.

“If I wanted to display a three-inch shell, then I would need a 300 foot area,” Francisco said. “South Boston’s area is kind of tight. We have certain distances from buildings, trees, and vehicles that we have to meet.”

Francisco has a lot of experience in fire safety; he was a volunteer firefighter from 1997 to 2019. From 1997 until 2017, he served with the Triangle Volunteer Fire Department, and from 2016 until the beginning of 2019, Francisco was a member of South Boston Fire Department. He said that he had followed a strange path to become a professional pyro-technician.

“Being in the fire department, fire departments are always trying to come up with different ways to get money. at Triangle, we created an annual Fun Day to get support. … We’re always thinking about things we can do that day to bring people to that event and fireworks came up. Now my family likes to shoot fireworks on Christmas Eve. … Somebody [in my family] kind of mentioned, ‘Hey could we do it?’” Francisco said.

Francisco was actually not present during that conversation. His brother Rodney Francisco told him about it, and Francisco was interested enough to ask his brother to include him. Rodney Francisco contacted the state fire marshall, who sent him a list of what permits they would need and how to get them.

“My brother received them [the papers from the state fire marshal] and then he brought them to me and I read them,” Francisco said.

“To be honest with you, if I knew all that was in it I wouldn’t have done it,” Francisco admitted.

The application process demands sacrifices of time and money as well as studying and building facilities to store the fireworks. An applicant must have worked on at least six shows to be eligible to take the permit test, then must schedule and take the test. After passing, the test scores must be submitted with the application.

“You had to have six shows under your belt,” Francisco said.

He worked on shows hosted by two different amateur fireworks clubs as well as four professional gigs, three with the same company. Francisco had not anticipated how much he would be spending on travel.

“I travelled as far as Pennsylvania to do shows,” Francisco said.

By the time he realized he was spending thousands of dollars on hotels, food, gas, and fees, he was already too deep into the process to quit. Typically, the fire marshal allows applicants two years to get the requisite six shows, but Francisco had his done in four or five months. He took his permit test at Danville Community College, and passed.

“I probably spent $2,000-$3,000 just to get my permits,” he said.

But here he learned a new lesson: a pyro-technician’s license only allows a person to launch fireworks, not to store, move, or handle them. He had to apply for another permit with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and build a waterproof, fireproof, theft proof bunker to house his stock. At last he formed Francisco Display Fireworks.

South Boston’s 2018 Fourth of July celebrations saw a particularly impressive display when the former owner of Virginia Skypainters had decided to use up some his extra stock before he retired. He sold his company to Francisco, who still operates the business under the name Virginia Skypainters.

“I try to limit what I’m doing with the fireworks. I’m not trying to take over the world. I’m not trying to go big with it. I have another full time job,” he said.

“You know in this business you work nights, weekends, and holidays.

“For the average person, you may see fireworks two or three times out of the year, so it is not a thing you’d think about,” Francisco said.

The role of the pyro-technician does not begin with setting up a rack of fireworks and does not end with cleaning it up. Francisco described it as primarily a job oriented around permits and making contracts.

“It’s a lot of paperwork, a lot of communication,” he said.

The most important parts of Francisco’s job are communicating with the various fire marshals that he meets and negotiating contracts with his clients, who he calls sponsors.

“What people don’t see is the work that goes on behind the scenes. Sometimes it’s enough to make you rethink if you wanted to keep doing it,” he said.

But Francisco said his doubts go away when show time arrives.

“I really enjoy it. It makes you feel really good when it’s showtime and you can hear the crowd and you see people setting their chairs up hours before the show starts,” Francisco said.

After his own tribulations getting his permits and licenses, and having seen how few people there were in the business, Francisco has attempted to do his part to make the profession more accessible to newcomers. Primarily, he has hired his family members who are also interested in fireworks.

“The company is a family owned business, so probably 95 percent of the people who help me are family,” Francisco said.

What makes him more open than the companies he previously worked for is that he will cover most of his employee’s expenses and pay them for the shows, luxuries no one afforded to him.

“I pay my people. It won’t cost them a dime [to participate in the shows],” Francisco said.

He would require them to pay their own fees for permits.

Francisco’s shows usually require between one and four people to run them. He worked on several projects as a solo operator, but as he has moved to larger displays, he has needed more help. South Boston’s display will be one of his larger, and will need four people to run safely.

“It really gets your adrenaline going,” Francisco said. “I didn’t even get into it for that reason but that was a nice outcome.”

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