Playing with fire

Jeff Coonce

Photo By Miranda Jesch

I walk into Lawlor Events Center and tell the guy at the reception desk I’m looking for Jeff Coonce. He tells me to look in the arena and that Jeff will be the biggest guy there, the guy who looks like he’s in control. There are 10 people in the arena, but I immediately spot him. He towers over me but becomes much less imposing as he starts to speak. Despite his presence, he is gracious, gentle and down-to-earth. I can’t imagine a person more qualified to work with explosives. Jeff created and operates Pyro Guys, the only local fireworks company. He works part-time at Lawlor as the event operator and technical services supervisor, and part time as a licensed pyro technician, responsible for shooting most of the firework displays you have seen around town, indoors and out. He does both private and commercial exhibitions. To contact Pyro Guys visit www.i-stage.net or call 853-2273. Is there much business in fireworks?All my work is here in town, and I average something once a month. There’s not enough business to do it full-time, and that’s why I work [at Lawlor]. But being at Lawlor helps different promoters locate me as a [fireworks] shooter, and because I’m here on site, it works out to a show’s benefit. I like to see people from out of state supporting the local businesses by using local providers.

Do you have extra business this time of year?

I’m not much busier this time of year than any. I stay constant throughout the year with conventions and concerts. I’ve done concerts for Kid Rock, the Backstreet Boys and Tina Turner. I’ve also done [former] WWF and I’ll be doing the Champions on Ice Olympic tour show coming up. I’ll also be doing shows for Grand Funk Railroad and The Guess Who at the Hilton, and the same night I’ll do a wedding at the Peppermill.

It sounds like you’re around celebrities a lot. What’s that like?

Well, I’ve been in the entertainment industry for some 20-odd years, so I’m not star struck. You get to meet a lot of people, but I don’t go ga-ga over them. You just treat them like normal people, and when they find out you’re not there to ask them for their autographs, they’re really nice. I’ve met Frank Sinatra, Suzanne Somers, Phyllis Diller, former President George Bush, Dan Quayle, Mrs. Reagan and local politicians like Guinn and Reid. I also met Garth Brooks, and he was so nice, really approachable.

What are you doing for the Fourth?

I’m going to do the Fourth of July celebration at the Hilton for the second year, and I’ll do a July 3 celebration for Sierra Nevada Golf. On July 6, I’ll do the “Pops on the River” at Wingfield Park.

How did you become a pyro technician?

Nevada is known as a non-friendly firework state because we are in a desert (laughs). You have to be licensed and registered. You need a Nevada license, a Nevada shooter license and an ATF license, which is for alcohol, tobacco and firearms. To get the Nevada license, you have to have $1 million of general liability [insurance] … I have $2 million. You also have to study under two different licensed pyro technicians and take three tests. It took me five years to get my license because of this process. I started the process in 1979 [and] was finished by 1984. But I didn’t get my license until 1990 because of the insurance issues. I created Pyro Guys when I was working on “Twist and Shout,” a Beatles revue at Harvey’s. People would ask, “Where’s the pyro guy?” And that’s how I got the name.

How many types of fireworks are there?

There’s indoor, outdoor and “outdoor close proximity.” Indoor is a specific pyro technique that uses a cold spark—you can set off a device, like a fountain, hold your hand over it and you won’t get burned. Outdoor close proximity is the same, just larger. The cold spark fireworks are a lot different than your standard Fourth of July fireworks and about five times as expensive. For outdoors, there are your Class B fireworks, which are the Fourth of July big shells, and Class C, which are consumer fireworks like sparklers and fountains. You can’t use these inside because they put off a toxic smoke and have a hot fallout.

What advances have there been in firework technology?

Within the last five years, they’ve been able to make a real blue, which they couldn’t make before. They’ve also started putting computer chips in fireworks to make the displays more accurate, for better choreography. They have also made the indoor fireworks safer. The specifications are more precise. So if you want a fountain to go exactly 15 feet high at a certain time, it’ll do it.

Have you ever been injured?

The good sign of a pyro technician is not being injured. You have to be able to think on your feet and have good foresight. I have a clean and safe record. We follow all the Nevada fireworks rules and regulations. We go through a permitting process with the city fire department and always tell them where, when and how many fireworks we have. And I have water fire extinguishers on site for anything that might come up. People who do fireworks in their back yard illegally don’t realize how dangerous it is. I know how to handle it, store it and operate it.

How does playing with explosives make you feel?

I see it as fun and not as work. It’s exciting. You get a view of something that could destroy you so easily, but it’s controlled. It’s like getting to live everybody’s dream to do fireworks. I was always interested as a kid. It’s a dream come true to do it and get paid for it. My daughter says, "I want to have a job like dad has." It’s a lot of fun.