He lights up the sky

Dan Benning, the pyrotechnic expert who sends fireworks aloft to thrill audiences, is a Port alderman
Ozaukee Press staff

There’s more to a fireworks show than meets the eyes and ears, according to Dan Benning of Port Washington.

About five to seven hours more, the Port Washington resident said.

Benning said that’s one element people often don’t realize while admiring the spectacular display of pyrotechnic devices.

Even for a 20-minute show, he said, “You’re talking four or five hours of setup and one to two hours of cleanup.”

Benning, who is a City of Port Washington alderman, has been putting in those hours for the past few years. He helps at several area shows per year, including Port’s Christmas parade.

Benning grew up in upstate New York and lived a few places before coming to Port 12 years ago. He always loved his hometown fire department’s annual fireworks show.

He got connected to the fireworks industry through a fellow member of Grand Avenue United Methodist Church in Port who works for J&M Displays, a fireworks company based in Iowa.

 He went to a show, was shown how a fireworks display comes together and “I got hooked,” he said.

He remembers lighting his first firework, a six-inch-diameter shell at a private show in Belgium.

“It’s a big woosh. It’s not a pop or anything,” he said.

He felt the heat as the firework launched into the sky and then smelled the gunpowder.

“That was really cool,” he said.

Benning has gone through online and in-person training since, and had to be validated by the Department of Homeland Security to be able to handle explosives.

For most shows, Benning said, crews of several people will arrive on scene around 3 p.m. They want to be set up by dusk so they don’t have to work in the dark.

Then, they hang out until doing a final check 30 minutes before showtime. Sometimes, customers will bring them dinner.

“You get to know them,” he said. “They will take care of us.”

The types of shows depend on the customer, he said.

“Grafton, for example, they want a lot of noise,” he said. “Others want more color in the sky.”

Part of Benning’s job brings that proverbial “push of a button” phrase to life.

Benning, who works in information technology at Johnson Controls in Glendale, scripts the shows on a computer in a  couple of hours. What shoots off when can be boiled down to an Excel spreadsheet, he said.

He exports the document to a CSV file, puts it onto a USB drive and inserts it into a large remote device that has numbers on it. Each one lights up green when it’s ready and red after the firework has been shot.

 A flashing number means something is wrong.

 “It tells me if I screwed up or if there’s an error,” Benning said.

The remote communicates with the module to which the fireworks are attached.

When everything is a go, “We sit back, push a button and admire the show,” he said.

Safety is always first, he said. He’s never had an accident.

“We just don’t tolerate any unsafe practices,” Benning said.

Benning wears a hard hat, safety glasses, hearing protection, gloves, long pants and boots at shows.

 While many shows are computerized, some wicks are still lit by hand. With those, there is no show watching.

“You’re keeping your eyes open to everything going on around you,” he said.

When a shell doesn’t go off, it is allowed to cool down for 20 minutes before being handled and possibly reused. Some have gone off after the shows.

“I was surprised when I got into this how long things smolder,” Benning said.

Weather and other factors make for interesting nights.

Benning has done shows after Lakeshore Chinooks games in Mequon. The village doesn’t allow fireworks after 10:45 p.m., and he remembers regularly checking his watch as a game went into extra innings.

In light rain, clear plastic can be laid across the tubes, and the fireworks will shoot right through them.

“These things are powerful,” Benning said.

In heavy rain, tarps are used and pulled off before the show. High winds can delay or cancel shows and show and thunderstorms cannot be in the area.

“Lightning is not a good thing,” Benning said.

For Port’s Christmas show, Benning helps with parade setup and then “I hoof it over” to help with the fireworks, he said. The cold doesn’t make much difference, but the wind decides whether or not the show goes on.

Fireworks come in different diameters. The 8 and 10-inch ones fill the sky, while the 3 to 6-inch versions are the lower, smaller ones or the noisemakers.

While Benning said he likes all kinds of fireworks, it’s his ears he aims to please the most.

“I’m a noise guy,” he said.

For those wondering how a grand finale works, a string of up to nine shells get sent off with one button. Combinations of fireworks may be used in the strings.

Benning gets paid for his work, but not much. Customer satisfaction, he said, makes it all worthwhile.

“The ooh and ahhs from the audience, the cheering. It’s just the best,” Benning said. “But then you know you’ve got cleanup coming.”

Shows leave a lot of debris, Benning said.

“My philosophy has always been leave it better than you found it,” he said.

One thing that scares Benning is seeing people light off their own fireworks, even young children. At the least, he said, the noise can damage hearing.

“Fireworks are dangerous. They’re not toys and they get treated like toys,” he said.

“I would rather people came to a show and enjoyed it.”



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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