Fireworks companies are short on staff and supplies heading into July 4th

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Alysha DiGiorgio knows there’s no 4th of July celebration without fireworks. But that’s the reality their customers face when a shipment delayed since April doesn’t arrive by Saturday from the ports of New York and New Jersey.

DiGiorgio, the vice president of Digital Lightning, a Maryland fireworks company, went to great lengths to avoid this. When staffing issues at the port in China delayed her delivery, she called other fireworks companies to buy extra stock — they didn’t have any.

She estimates that three-fourths of the rockets, Roman candles and Camaros she’ll need for a busy Independence Day show schedule from Solomons, MD to Herndon, Virginia are still stuck in shipping containers that may only see their seller a few days reach before the events.

“We’ve never been in this situation,” DiGiorgio said.

Demand for fireworks rose above pre-pandemic levels this year as cities and counties rush to finally get back to normal after two years of Independence Day celebrations stifled by the coronavirus. Supply chain issues are jeopardizing these celebrations as fireworks companies, still suffering from the downturn, are unable to secure enough product or staff to meet demand.

In Maryland and Virginia, shortages of fireworks and pyrotechnicians trained to fire them have led to show cancellations, including in College Park, Md., and the postponement of events in Montgomery County; Fairfax City; Vienna, Virginia; and Ocean City, Maryland; until before or after July 4th. Many shows that are still scheduled depend on rebookings, last-minute deliveries and a bit of luck.

“It was pretty shocking,” said Cathy Salgado, director of Fairfax Parks and Recreation, whose commissioned fireworks company canceled about 25 shows in the area. “I’ve been doing fireworks shows for 25 years. [This] has never happened.”

For a spectacle that ends in seconds and a flash, each rocket in a fireworks show typically takes months of preparation to arrive on time. Planning is essential when most fireworks are shipped from China, and almost all of the fireworks industry’s business takes place on just one day a year.

The entire fireworks industry fell silent in 2020 as the coronavirus brought most public celebrations to a halt and disrupted seasonal hiring of pyrotechnicians and orders. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, the industry’s annual sales grew from an average of more than $300 million over the past decade to $93 million in 2020. The gap has hit smaller companies hardest.

“Companies lost 90.95 percent of their revenue,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the APA. “They had no business.”

Last year’s Independence Day celebrations fell to about 60 percent of pre-pandemic demand, low enough for businesses to make do with leftover inventory, Heckman said. But with most of their crews furloughed and no new orders in the pipeline, most companies were far from prepared for normal annual business.

“And now gangbusters have come back,” Heckman said.

Scaling wasn’t easy. Most pyrotechnicians in the United States are hired seasonally and require, among other things, a commercial driver’s license, a dangerous goods license to transport explosives, and a background check — qualifications that have long since expired for those who were furloughed when the pandemic began.

Timothy Jameson, owner of Innovative Pyrotechnic Concepts fireworks company in Maryland, is one of the lucky few who have enough fireworks in stock for the holiday season. He took out a loan in 2020 to order firecrackers in bulk amid fears of further supply chain disruptions.

But bearing the cost of fireworks two years in advance isn’t feasible for most companies, which are either too big to order enough to meet customer demand in the face of shortages, or too small to command higher prices to absorb tight margins. Shipping costs have also increased during the pandemic, Heckman said. DiGiorgio said their fees for shipping from China have increased by 500 percent.

As Chinese factories and American buyers were out of sync for a year — production was shut down during the pandemic as demand from the United States slumped — Jameson said Delays will continue.

“Companies recognize that they will continue to face this problem, if they don’t order 18 months in advance – which means they are already ordering late for 2023 – they will continue to face this problem,” he said.

Jameson said his company scrambles to help cities with makeup shows after their original fireworks companies canceled them until he ran out of crews to staff the events. Many organizers, who turned to backup companies, had to move the celebrations to the days surrounding the holiday. Lily Widman, the City of Vienna’s special events coordinator, called each number on a local list of fireworks vendors before deciding on Friday, July 1, as the alternate date.

“We’ve had a few people who were disappointed,” Widman said. “But mostly a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, that’s even better. We can get a whole weekend to party.’”

However, saving some shows will not be enough to cover the rising costs of fireworks companies. Many smaller ones didn’t survive 2020 and even bigger players like Jameson are reluctant to expand in the face of ongoing challenges.

“I don’t want to be that company,” Jameson said. “I’m happy with our 200 shows in this region and that’s all I want to do, believe me.”

DiGiorgio, who normally only does six Fourth of July shows a year, is thinking about the future of her company for the first time — “we’re basically losing money to make this year happen,” she said. Should costs continue to rise, Digital Lightning is considering exiting the fireworks business and focusing on the company’s other event lighting services.

“I hope that’s not the case,” DiGiorgio said. “Because we really like making fireworks. We just love to see the excitement of the crowd cheering at the end of the show.”

DiGiorgio and a dwindling crew of technicians were in Middleburg Wednesday setting up the scaffolding from which they will launch fireworks over the Salamander Resort on July 4th. It’s another change in their schedule due to staff shortages – they don’t usually set up that far in advance and have to cover gear until show crews arrive.

Early Saturday morning, just two days before her displays need to be set up and prepared, DiGiorgio will make the five-hour drive to her company’s Pennsylvania dealership. Hopefully her Fireworks will be waiting for them. Fireworks companies are short on staff and supplies heading into July 4th

Dustin Huang

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