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FireOne: How a Hobby Transformed into an International Business

by on July 04, 2013 7:55 AM

Nestled away in a quaint office building off Benner Pike, it appears to resemble a typical State College business. There’s just one difference: Most State College businesses don’t serve clients on six different continents.

Pyrotechnics Management, affectionately known as FireOne, is in the process of finishing up its busiest time of the year.

“For the last month, we’ve been working 14-15 hours a day,” says owner Dan Barker with a smile. “Sometimes I feel like I’m working 27 hours a day.”

One could reasonably assume that the hectic schedule is due to the quickly approaching 4th of July, a holiday synonymous with fireworks, but that does not capture the whole picture.

“It’s summer in Europe. It’s fall in Africa and Australia. We’re serving two hemispheres right now,” Barker says.

Barker explains that over 70 percent of his business comes from outside the United States, but before a company run by six employees turned into an international powerhouse and industry leader, it started with a simple idea: Making State College a destination spot to spend the 4th of July.

“I asked myself ‘Why can’t we have a great 4th of July celebration right here in State College,’” says Barker.

The longtime resident has lived in State College for over 50 years and remembers the days when 4th Fest didn’t exist.

“I graduated from State College [Area] High School when the building was new. That shows how long I’ve been here for.”

Barker attended Penn State where he received a degree in engineering and remained in the area after college.

He served as a volunteer for Alpha Fire Company. During the 1970s and 1980s, Alpha was responsible for the State College 4th of July celebration that consisted of a ferris wheel and small parade on Allen Street. Don’t even think about fireworks. There weren’t any. Things got worse when Alpha eventually stopped doing anything.

“I understand why they stopped; it was a lot of work, but at the same time, I felt like they had let the community down.”

Barker knew Joe and Sue Paterno who told him they went down the Jersey shore every 4th of July.

“I kept telling Joe we needed him in State College. If they don’t want to be here, we have a real problem. ‘Let’s fix this, I thought. Let’s do something of consequence.’”

From 1991-2001, Barker put on a fireworks display every 4th of July, setting off stuff all over Happy Valley including the edge of Beaver Stadium and the top of Mount Nittany.

With his engineering background, one might assume Barker had a long fascination with fireworks. Not so.

“I really learned on the job. I wasn’t some kid who was running around my grandfather’s yard setting stuff off. I just willed it to exist.”

Barker was also president of the 3WZ radio station at the time, and songs became an important part of his fireworks routine. 

He had the innovative idea of synchronizing fireworks with music, and by 2001, he had hit it big. The Wall Street Journal recognized the State College show as one of the top three displays in the nation.

Barker had the birth of a business on his hands. George Zambelli, who owned a fireworks company in Lancaster, Pa had heard about FireOne years prior when it was still getting off the ground.  Zambelli was the first person outside of the State College area to show interest in FireOne, but Barker's client base was beginning to expand as the accolades rolled in. Everything seemed to be going great, but there was one issue.

“I was working 28 hours days and pumping money I didn’t have into the show,” says Barker. “I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

In 2001, a committee was formed to organize the 4th of July celebration that eventually became known as 4th Fest. Barker helped them through a transition year, but his taking a backseat allowed him to grow his company. He sold 3WZ radio and was able to devote most of his attention to FireOne.

FireOne developed equipment that's used around the world.

“We provide the training along with the hardware and software for fireworks companies,” Barker says. “What we pride ourselves on is always getting feedback from companies and trying to help them. We’ll never just ship an order and tell them they’re on their own.”

The hardware consists of a field module with fireworks connected to it and a control panel.

The software is a bit more extensive. First, there is a program called ScriptMaker. It includes a huge fireworks database that allows programmers to choreograph a show and simulate how it will look live. Another program called FireOne brings the show to life.

“There’s a lot of mathematics and split-second decision-making that goes into launching fireworks. FireOne allows people with computers in the field to cancel or alter a particular firework if needed without messing up the whole show,” says Barker.

He says that each module will shoot 32 fireworks. A big display like 4th Fest will utilize approximately 200 modules. Some smaller shows only require 20-30.

Over the past decade, FireOne has built an impressive resume. Their technology was used for the 2012 London Summer Olympics and Commonwealth Games in Australia. Disney uses the FireOne system, and so does Busch Gardens. Several concerts have also embraced it.

The unique thing about FireOne’s rise to prominence is that Barker and his small team barely realized what they had at first.

“I was at a trade show in Germany. Someone kept walking up to me and asking me questions. I finally asked why and he said ‘You’re FireOne. Everyone knows you.’”

“It’s almost like we invented the better mouse trap, but we didn’t realize it until someone told us we did. Our reputation got there before we did.”

Currently, he focuses more on administrative and logistical stuff in his office, but FireOne’s success has taken Barker to some interesting parts of the world, his favorite one being Sydney, Australia to do a New Years show.

“It’s summer out there. You’re right on water. There’s no better place to be.”

He thanks his wife Kay for her support and help over the years. His son Darin, a Cornell graduate, left a job in New York City to oversee FireOne’s financials as it became a corporate entity.

Employees Chris and Patrick sit at tables in the downstairs portion of the office drilling away and creating more field modules. The 4th of July happens once a year but FireOne is a 365-day business, and they have to be stocked with supplies in case a client calls with an emergency.

This Thursday, Barker won’t be around to see what he and FireOne helped start. He’s off to his original hometown of Pittsburgh to conduct their fireworks show. Even with the worldwide success, he remembers why he first started this over two decades ago.

“I think we did something very nice for State College and the Centre Region. It worked out that doing a good deed for the community did a good deed for us too, and we plan to be around for some time.”

For additional information on FireOne, check out its official website by clicking HERE.


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Drew Balis is a Penn State graduate, freelance reporter and frequent contributor to StateCollege.com.
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