Name: Mike Tockstein
Job Title: Pyrotechnician (a.k.a. Pyrotechnic Operator)
Employer: Independent Contractor for Pyro Spectaculars
Years of Experience: Licensed Since 2001
Education: M.S. and B.S. in Electrical Engineering
Salary: A pyrotechnician salary is based on a percentage of individual show cost
For readers interested in becoming a pyrotechnician, there’s not a whole lot of info out there on the typical pyrotechnician salary or where to go for pyrotechnician training. Fortunately, we tracked down Mike Tockstein, a pyrotechnician who lit up this Salary Stories interview with info about pyrotechnician jobs, pyrotechnician employers, the general responsibilities of a pyrotechnician, and pyrotechnician training (as mentioned at his website, pyroinnovations.com). Mike also described the requirements for becoming a pyrotechnician and the average pyrotechnician salary. If you've ever wanted to shoot up the sky for pay, keep reading!
Pyrotechnician Job Description:
A pyrotechnician is responsible for the setup and discharge of a public fireworks display. He/she is knowledgeable about federal, state, and local laws regarding the safe setup and discharge of a fireworks display. He trains and supervises his own crew, who may or may not have to be licensed depending on which state you operate in. During most shows, an operator acts as an overseer, who goes between the different members of his crew to make sure all aspects of the show are set up properly.
Is there such thing as pyrotechnician training? How do you learn pyrotechnician skills?
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First off, being a pyrotechnician is seldom a career. The only day you're really guaranteed work is on the Fourth of July. So I consider it more of a hobby. After gaining experience, I now shoot between 20-30 shows a year, hardly enough to make a living off of. I have been fascinated with fireworks since I was a small boy, and could not wait to get into the field. I did some research and could not really find any job offerings or training in becoming a pyrotechnician.
It turned out to be one of those fields where it really helps to know someone in order to get in. I would try to get as close as I could to the fireworks crews setting up the local displays where I grew up, hoping to get to talk to one of them. Eventually I did, and they referred me to the company I now shoot for. The laws vary slightly from state to state, but in California you need to work on different crews (to gain experience) for a minimum of two years, shooting at least 8 public displays in those two years, obtain five written letters of recommendations from other licensed operators, then submit your application to the State Fire Marshal's Office.
Once they determine you are eligible (after a thorough background check), you take the written exam which covers all of the state fireworks laws. It doesn't end there. You then must obtain a commercial drivers license with a hazardous materials endorsement in order to transport the fireworks to/from your show site. You must be at least 18 years old to work on a crew, and 21 to get a license. This will probably come as no surprise, I was licensed two weeks after my 21st birthday.
What advice would you give to those interested in becoming a pyrotechnician?
If you live in Southern California, I'll get you out on a show. There is a simple step-by- step process on my website, pyroinnovations.com, on how to join my professional fireworks crew. If you don't reside in Southern California, your best bet is to contact your local fireworks display company and they should be able to set you up with a crew.
If you don't know who the local companies are, contact your State Fire Marshal's Office and they should be able to give you a list of them. Although it's not required to have a technical background to become a licensed operator, it does help you better understand what you are dealing with and make you better at debugging the technical issues at a show. So it's my personal recommendation that you major in either one of the sciences or engineering disciplines while in college.
What is the average pyrotechnician salary?
Pyrotechnicians are considered "independent contractors" in most cases. So there is no set pyrotechnician salary. You are paid on a show by show basis. Typically, display companies will pay an operator a percentage of the actual show cost. So the bigger the show, the more money you make. I have made anywhere from $100 to well over $2000 for one show.
But you have to remember that pyrotechnician salaries are not all profit. I always feed my crew, buy supplies, and pay the crew on the shows where it is practical. If I get paid $100 and I have 4 people that came out to crew for me that day, it's just not practical to pay anyone, especially after feeding them; those shows are just volunteer. I consider this a hobby that I would do for free in most cases, so getting paid is just a bonus.
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