Pyrotechnics and Special Effects

Incorporating flashing and sparkling effects in any kind of show always creates excitement and a good reaction from the audience. Appearing from an empty box is great: Doing the same effect with a shower of confetti or a wall of fireworks is awesome!

Unfortunately, there is a price to pay for the glamour. Since the tragedy that happened to the rock band Great White during a concert in 2002, venues and special events are now extremely concerned with safety. Simply saying the word “Pyrotechnics” to a client will, at least, set you up for a long conversation. Safety is the main consideration in the use of pyrotechnic effects. Everything else is secondary.

In Canada & America, you will need certification as well as some special licenses if you want to do your “Copperfield” disappearance. To be safe, you need to be knowledgeable and you need to exercise due diligence and care.

The following information should give you an idea on whether or not Pyrotechnics is something for you. Enjoy!

Important: The information contain here should not be taken as official reference. It is here ONLY to give you some basic information regarding pyrotechnics and their regulations. For the most accurate information, please contact the Explosives Regulatory Division (ERD, see below) or the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA, also see below). Some parts of the information presented here come from the “Pyrotechnics Special Effects Manual” published by the ERD.

(For Dan's thoughts on why safety info was not originally included in, and will not be added to, this article, click here.)

Explosives Regulatory Division
Natural Resources Canada
580 Booth Street, 15th Floor
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0E4
National Fire Prevention Association
1 Batterymarch Park
Quincy, Massachusetts
USA 02169-7471

What is considered a pyrotechnic special effect?
The list is too long to be put here in its entirety, but here are a few examples:

• Flash, smoke, fire, concussion, airburst and others special powder
• Fireworks of any size or duration
• Flame projection
• Electric matches or igniters
• Gun’s blank cartridges
• Confetti mortar using electric match
• …Almost any thing that looks cool.

Who does not require certification?
In Canada, performers such as magicians, who only use flash cotton, flash paper, flash string, sparkle string and oil/water-based fog machine do not require certification. However, you still need to be of the age of majority to purchase any of these items.

Some American cities and states, as well as some countries, however, require you to have a permit/license simply for the purchase of flash paper, flash cotton or flash string.

Who requires certification?
You must be certified if you are associated with pyrotechnic special effects in any of the following ways:

• Purchase
• Storage
• Transport
• Supervision
• Use
• Destruction

You will also likely require training/certification/permits/licenses for the city/province/state of your performance.

Pyrotechnic special effects course
The ERD (Canada) and the NFPA (America) offer Pyrotechnic Special Effects courses periodically, depending on the demand, at various locations throughout the repsecticive countries. Passing the course and being issued a certification card is a prerequisite for entry into the field. To register for a course or obtain information, contact the ERD or the NFPA (see above) or your local pyrotechnics vendor. After passing the course, you will need to pay an annual fee, the cost of which will be set according to your Certification Class(es).

Classes of Certification
Pyrotechnic Special Effects is a wide and varied field. A theatre technician reproducing a lighting strike during a stage play, a pyrotechnician up to a rock concert, a special effects pyrotechnician destroying structures in a film scene - all these people are using pyrotechnic special effects in ways that requires certification under the law. In Canada, certification is divided into four classes:

• Theatrical User
• Assistant
• Pyrotechnician
• Special Effects Pyrotechnician

It would never cross your mind to drive a car without insurance. It is the same with pyrotechnics. In fact, venues or producers will not even hire you if you can’t present proof of insurance certification. You will need liability insurance for at least $1,000,000 (one million dollars). Are you ready? In Canada, to be covered for a year, you can expect to pay around $5000.00 and up. This is a very specific insurance clause, and is not covered by any “general liability”.

Event Approval Form
Certification and insurance are not all you need to “blow away the building” or to make “Santa” appear. Before any event can be staged using pyrotechnic special effects, an “Event Approval Form” (EAF) must be completed, and presented to and approved by, the local fire department in a reasonable time before the event. This form will go by different names in different jurisdictions, but will include:

• The appropriate Pyrothechnics Special Effects certificate
• A sketch of the facility, including exits and outside access
• A list of all pyrotechnics to be employed, with their placement
• Approval to disconnect any smoke and heat sensor
• Safety measures to be taken
• Ventilation verification
• etc…

New friend, Steve Zigmont, wrote me with the following extra info, some of which is specific to Americans, but all of which probably has national parallels everywhere.

You will need various licenses/permits with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (AFT permits 19 binary and 34 low explosive) and the State in which you live or are performing, and various other localities.

The Fire Marshal's office will require you to provide proof of a $1,000,000.00 Class "C" 1.4G explosives liability insurance policy. This is a policy that is just for pyro; not a general liability policy. You will have to show you qualifications of  NFPA 1126 national fire codes for  Standards for the use of Pyrotechnics before a Proximate Audience. Your Log Book of shows performed and the related  information of facilities and the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) for products used in the effects.  This can include open flame and smoke machines in some cities. Non-compliance can result in heavy fines and arrest.

For some venues, it simply will not be possible to obtain a permit. Walls, ceilings, and curtains must be fire-retardant and approved. Minimum ceiling heights are also required for many effects. Also, the permit process takes at least 15 days.

Steve Zigmont is the pyro specialist that news organizations like ABC World News Tonight and the Los Angles Times called upon for consulting on the Rhode Island Tragedy, at which 100 people were killed as the result of the dangerous use of pyro in a bar by the rock group "Great White".

Zigmont Magic F/X Inc.

Pyrotechnics Hardware
Using an aluminum plate to ignite your flash powder with a match is certainly not the way to go. A circuit control console with safety button, regular & angle pod, varied mortars and cables are part of the equipment that you will need to buy or rent. Under the Criminal Code of Canada, a pyrotechnician must fulfill the duties of care, or possibly face the consequences of non-compliance. If you are found to have used pyrotechnic special effects in an unsafe or illegal manner, the ERD may:

• Revoke or suspend your pyrotechnics certification
• Take legal action
• Prohibit future events
• Invalidate your insurance

The Big Finale!
As you can see, adding “Thunder and Lightning” to a show is not as simple as doing a double lift. But, if you think that it’s worth the effort and could enhance your presentation, give it a try. Fireworks have presented all around the world for centuries. We should be able to enjoy them for a few more years. Have fun!


LORAN is an International Magician who has thrilled audiences with his performances on stage and television, in movies, and at special events for more than 10 years. The movie industry also regularly looks to him as a consultant and performer. Loran’s hands have doubled Movie Stars such as Jackie Chan and Richard Dreyfuss. His acting talents have been seen in many television series like Nikita, Mutant-X, Witchblade and Relic Hunter.
In 2003, Loran opened for the Rolling Stones at the biggest concert in Canadian history ... SARSTOCK. He was the only llusionist chosen to share the scene with world-class musical acts Rush, AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, and many others.
You can visit his web site at

Thanks for your interest, and PLAY SAFE!

Dan McLean Jr

© 2003 Dan McLean Jr