It is 20 minutes before the Fishers Freedom Festival fireworks show is scheduled to begin, and Phil Ramsey helps his crew
rush to cover the shells they've spent five hours getting ready.
There's nothing on the radar but it is sprinkling, and Ramsey looks frustrated that he might have to cancel. As the rain falls harder, he remains outside watching the weather while his five employees dive under a truck bed to stay dry.
After 10 minutes, Ramsey's nemesis, Mother Nature, stops the rain in time for his spectacular display of shapes, sounds and colors to light the night sky.
More than 600 shells are packed and ready to go on a 300-foot-by-500-foot grassy area behind the main Fishers fire station. Most are on two flatbed trucks, but about 60 shells are angled skyward in free-standing racks.
Wires run from the explosives to a switchboard on a folding table nearby. Hand-fired shells would have been quicker to set up, but electric shows are safer and better controlled.
Ramsey, 65, knows what he's doing--he's been working fireworks shows as a volunteer since 1968 and founded Frankfort-based Ramsey Pyrotechnics Inc. in 1982. When he's not battling Mother Nature, Ramsey is a grain farmer.
When he started his business, Ramsey and his eight workers did shows only for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Symphony on the Prairie. Now, he and about 20 others do more than 50 shows a year throughout Indiana.
He is busiest around July Fourth but also does Indianapolis Indians games, weddings and other celebrations. He also said he is the only person to have shot fireworks from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Monument Circle.
Ramsey declined to disclose his yearly revenue, but said his shows cost anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000. They average 20 minutes and use 150 to 1,000 shells.
Friend and competitor Jim Bright does about 30 shows throughout Indiana as general manager of Indianapolis-based International Fireworks Merchandisers Inc. His biggest event is Indianapolis' SkyConcert, but he also does weddings and birthdays. He's even been called on for funerals and divorces.
Bright's firm collects $450,000 to $500,000 a year. He charges from $1,000 up to six figures, averaging 20 minutes and using up to 3,000 shells.
Ramsey and Bright both buy pre-made shells. Their success is contingent upon safety.
"[It's a] labor-intensive, dangerous function to do," said Bright, 52. "You have to have a safety zone so if you had a shell malfunction, it'd go into the ground and not destroy property or houses."
Safety is one reason Ramsey launches fireworks with the flip of a switch. Electric shows use a current traveling from the switchboard along a wire and into an electric match in a shell. The match creates a spark and ignites the fireworks. Hand-fired launches involve lighting a 3- to 4-inch fuse, then getting far enough away in the three to seven seconds it takes to ignite.
However they're launched, the shells sit in soft, plastic tubes known as mortars. Gunpowder is placed under the shells and ignited. Once in the air, the shells explode and produce the effects seen from the ground.
Ramsey said his years of pyrotechnic experience give him an advantage.
"We buy higher-price material so it doesn't blow in the tube, harm people or [not] go off at all," he said. "We have a lot of confidence in ... what it's going to do when we hit the switch. We don't tolerate erratic performance. These are dangerous materials."
He teaches his crew proper care for shells and said everything he does follows safety procedures. Some professionals wear hard hats, safety glasses, gloves and earplugs, but Ramsey is used to the cannon-like, ear-ringing noise and knows where to safely stand when launching.
When a shell explodes lower than expected and flaming ash rains down, he doesn't flinch. That's business.
That said, he has had a couple of incidents. A 3-inch shell once detonated in its mortar, igniting a half-dozen surrounding shells. The other mortars tilted sideways and sprayed horizontally. Luckily, nobody was hurt.
"When that happens, there's no way to stop it," Ramsey said. "We have water cans, but it happens so fast there's no time to grab the cans."
Because of the materials Ramsey works with, he is constantly checked by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The danger Ramsey and his crew put themselves in might go unnoticed by the audience, but he's not in it for the recognition.
"We get rewarded when we get new business," he said. "We hear the cheering and clapping, which are nice, but the best is the additional work. ... It's quite hard work. It's always hot, and the mosquitoes are fierce. It's dangerous, but the beauty of the shells makes it enjoyable."
Ramsey's hard work has paid off because, when it's show time, he is able to enjoy the view while his crew flips the switches and checks for falling debris--and there is no end in sight.
"There seems to be an ongoing challenge of accommodating new customers and there's a flow of new shells, effects, materials and ideas to display them," he said. "It's similar to farming where each spring there's a new optimism. You just want to do better next year. It fires you up."