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Skylighters Fireworks’ Matt Shaw: Fireworks are fun, but safety is paramount

As president of Skylighters Fireworks, Matt Shaw works at least 100 hours a week in the summer, when his company’s services are in peak demand. Fireworks were first used in China some 20 centuries ago to scare off mountain men, but now, they signify celebration. Since Shaw’s first fireworks gig in 2003 at the Buffalo Biker Blast in Niagara Square, laws have changed to allow the use of fireworks for private celebrations. People hire Skylighters to mark birthdays, weddings, concerts, holiday parties – even funerals.

“Fireworks are the American way,” said Shaw, who bought the business five years ago after working there as an employee for eight years. On most nights, Shaw accompanies a team of licensed technicians who travel throughout Western New York to stage more than 200 fireworks shows each year.

Despite all his attention to business, Shaw manages to get away yearly for some rest and relaxation. He said he loves the heat of Central America.

People Talk: What’s a bad day for you?

Matt Shaw: When it’s rainy and windy out.

PT: How does one become a licensed pyrotechnician?

MS: Three years of hands-on experience with a licensed display operator, followed by a standardized test and a lifetime of continuing education. A licensed operator must be present at every shoot site. They must be fingerprinted and obtain a federal license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Every three years, a recertification is required. Professional fireworks are wrapped in brown paper. By ATF standards, and for tracking purposes, all fireworks I purchase must carry my name and address. They all must be accounted for – not only the quantity but the weight, too.

PT: Are sparklers regulated?

MS: Consumer fireworks are illegal in New York State, but some were declassified as a “safe and sane” item – like sparklers, snaps and fountains are now legal. Their use is determined on a county-by-county basis. Niagara County allows them. Erie County does not.

PT: Do you have all your fingers?

MS: I do, and so do my employees. When you hire a professional who is insured and who knows what they’re doing, it’s safe. What hurts the industry is when people go down to Pennsylvania and get illegal fireworks, shoot it next to their house and start a fire – or if it goes into a crowd, and someone gets hurt.

PT: Is an M-80 a firework?

MS: That’s an illegal explosive. M-80s were never on the market. Their purpose is just to make a lot of noise. It’s a federal offense to possess them.

PT: What do you do in winter?

MS: Script shows, choreograph fireworks to music. Sometimes it takes hundreds of hours just to plan a half-hour display. Winter is when we sign our contracts, pull permits, test products.

PT: How do you get the fireworks here?

MS: Import them directly from the manufacturers in China, but we also buy domestic products. We have some Japanese products, Italian products. Fireworks have come a long way, even though there are still some bad manufacturers out there.

PT: What’s a surefire crowd pleaser?

MS: Gold weeping willows that come right to the ground with a flitter and strobing effects that are absolutely beautiful.

PT: What’s trending in fireworks?

MS: We’ll do indoor fireworks outside, like special-effect pyrotechnics where the distance from spectators is a lot less. The fireworks we did for the Buffalo Marathon a couple of weeks ago over the archway on Delaware Avenue to start the race. What’s gotten popular are the different pattern shells with smile faces, blinking eyes and hearts. You should only do one at a time because if you do three and they intersect, you lose the pattern.

PT: The colors seem to be more vibrant recently.

MS: They keep on improving on the quality of the color and its duration. Fireworks are made of different chemicals. Every color is another chemical.

PT: What have you learned from fireworks?

MS: When I’m on a display, I spend my time where the spectators are. I see the expressions, how the crowd is taking the display. Everybody loves fireworks.