ROCHELLE — On the night of 4th of July after putting on the fireworks show, Rochelle Fire Department Firefighter/Paramedic Ben Johnson can be found watching the show back on YouTube.
“We don't actually watch much of it,” Johnson said. “We're too busy making sure stuff goes up and watching to make sure nothing is falling and everyone is safe. My wife asks me why I do it, 'Didn't you just shoot it? Weren't you there all day?' Yeah, but I didn't see any of it.”
Rochelle Fire will put on its annual fireworks show Sunday night after last year was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson will lead a group of 10-15 firefighters in a 15-hour long effort on the holiday to get the show set up and shot.
It takes 100-150 man hours to do the fireworks show, depending on the size of it and weather complications. Firefighters must stay with the fireworks all day to prevent tampering. The crew sets up on 20th Street across from Atwood and Cooper Park, where many of the town’s residents will gather to watch.
Depending on the size of the fireworks, the mortars are set up 300-800 feet from the park.
“Our smallest shells are 2.5 inches,” Johnson said. “Our 10-inch shells are like basketballs going into the air. It's pretty intense. But we no longer reload. We preload everything. Every year they roll out guidelines and rules to make it safer. It's a pretty progressive industry. Nobody is having any fun if someone gets hurt.”
The city budgets about $10,000 each year for the fireworks show. This year, Rochelle Fire has faced the challenge of fireworks being in low supply and they were more expensive. The city will have a full show on Sunday, Johnson said.
After last year’s fireworks shows were canceled, demand went up for 2021 with cities like Rochelle trying to put on a good show for their firework-starved spectators.
“Overall, I think everyone was really disappointed,” Johnson said. “This is the highlight of the summer for us, one of the things we really look forward to. It draws a large crowd. The people are together at the park. I think people are more eager to see it this year.”
Johnson said Rochelle is one of the few cities left that has their own fire department do the show. Many now contract it out to private businesses. Training and licensing is required for Rochelle Fire to put on the show.
“Not a whole lot of fire departments get to do this,” Johnson said. “It makes you feel kind of like a little kid. You get to go out and shoot fireworks off and people cheer for it. At the end of the night, people are all over Facebook saying that was awesome.”
Rochelle Fire aims to make the show last 20-25 minutes, which Johnson said is the sweet spot for keeping a crowd’s attention. About 1,000 shells are shot into the air. Firing is done electronically to be as safe as possible.
Johnson said putting on the show is a point of pride for firefighters. A lot do the job to be involved in the community. Some of that interaction has been lost during COVID-19.
“Doing the fireworks show, people look forward to it and it's fun to be a part of that,” Johnson said. “That's the best part of it. There are a lot of folks around town who really get a kick out of the fire department being the one that does that. Some never miss a show. It's a point of tradition."
Johnson said the show will kick off around 9:25 p.m. on Sunday night. He said if weather becomes an issue, residents should watch the city and fire department’s Facebook pages for information. He advised residents not to call the fire department or 911 and tie up the line.
Johnson also said those that watch in cars should make sure to park off the road where it’s legal to prevent accidents. He said no fireworks should be brought to or lit off in parks. Rochelle Fire sees at least one fireworks-related fire at a residence each year.
“The risk is definitely there,” Johnson said. “And fireworks injuries are very ugly. The ER sees that. It's not worth it. Your tax dollars pay for a free show. Come watch it.”
Firefighters do safety briefings before putting on the show. They all wear personal protective equipment like coveralls, gloves, helmets and ear and eye protection. After everything is set up, the tradition is to eat Country School fried chicken before firing the first shell.
Johnson said despite higher costs, the city never considered skipping the show this year.
“People would be let down,” Johnson said. “This is one of the most fun ways we can give back. It's pretty rewarding, but a lot of work. Especially when it's 95 degrees. It takes a lot of orchestration to get it off the ground. I look forward to it every year.”
History of Rochelle fireworks
Tom McDermott was the Rochelle Fire Department Chief for 24 years before retiring in 2009. He always felt Rochelle was as good as it gets as far as firework shows in small towns.
Towards the end of his time as chief, putting on the show became safer and less repetitive loading was done.
“It was and can still be very dangerous,” McDermott said. “For the spectators it’s all good fun, but there really is a whole lot of risk involved. It’s explosives sitting with things blowing up next to them. It can ignite the next mortar. There’s sparks coming down. Some don’t lift high enough. You’re never 100 percent sure where the next explosion will be.”
McDermott said not many other towns shoot the show as close to where spectators sit as Rochelle, hence why firefighters have moved further out recently.
“You’ll feel the fireworks in your chest if you’re in the park,” McDermott said. “That’s the concussion from the explosions.”
McDermott echoed Johnson’s sentiments about not ever being able to watch a show while working. He never found time to look up while making sure every firefighter on site was safe.
After the show, firefighters sweep the area to make sure there aren't any dangerous shells or debris left that came down from the sky or never left the ground in the first place.
“The spectators all get in their cars and go home and firefighters have to check every mortar to see if there’s a live one,” McDermott said. “It’s very dangerous. But they’ve done it for years and years.”
McDermott said the idea of shooting fireworks as a firefighter can seem counterintuitive to the job, which is to prevent fire and injuries.
“It’s a conscious decision to blow stuff up,” McDermott said. “And there honestly is fun in it. Rochelle Fire has been doing it since the 1950s and 1960s. Residents have done it here since 1896. They used to do it downtown at Lincoln Highway and Cherry Avenue in the street next to wooden buildings. So, we’re not as crazy as we used to be.”