Thousands of people will wrap up their Independence Day celebrations by looking to the sky and seeing fireworks twinkling over the Mississippi River.

What they won't see is the licensed pyrotechnic operator and fire inspector standing in a plywood box beneath the show.

Behind the scenes of every public fireworks program in Louisiana is a system of state and federal inspections and licensing to ensure the public is safe from the giant explosives.

"The importance of this certification is it assures people can come and safely view a nice fireworks show," said State Fire Marshal Butch Browning, who licenses fireworks-related activities in the state.

In order to be the lead operator on a public fireworks show, Louisiana requires people to pass a written exam based on a nationally recognized code and prove they have assisted on five professional displays. Browning said the test covers the different types of fireworks, permitting and how to determine the necessary buffer zone around the setup.

"When you see a fireworks display where the devices shoot 100 feet in the air, you'd expect a large buffer zone," Browning said. 

The fire marshal's office also reviews permit applications for the displays themselves, Browning said. On the night of the show, an inspector is always on scene to supervise, Browning said.

Browning said his office permits 40 to 50 shows each around the 4th of July and New Year's Eve. 

Regulations vary from state to state. 

David Spear operates many of the larger fireworks shows in Louisiana with his company, AFX PRO, and with the national firm J&M Displays that is responsible for tonight's WBRZ Fireworks on the Mississippi and a show at the Americana subdivision in Zachary.

Spear said he often receives calls from people who like to "blow stuff up," but he's looking for more serious folks, even if they only do fireworks as a side job.

"We've had dentists work for us, attorneys work for us, CPAs," Spear said.

Professional fireworks displays feature a more hazardous grade of fireworks that require a federal permit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to purchase and transport, Spear said. 

While trade groups offer fireworks training at a number of locations across the country, Spear said he offers classes to interested pyrotechnicians at his company in Mandeville and has trained hundreds of people. 

Once they complete the classroom course, they must assist on five shows and take the state test to be considered for a spot as a lead operator. 

"They have to convince me they can do a show on their own," Spear said. 

He said a fireworks operator can face many curve balls, including bad weather and cars parked too close to the display. They also need to know how to operate the electronic lighters and be willing to haul heavy equipment.

"You've gotta be a little bit of an expert in a lot of things," Spear said.

One of Spear's proteges is his son, Brandon Spear, who was designing the Baton Rouge show on Tuesday.

"I'm not an artist," Spear said. "My 30-year-old son, who is setting up the WBRZ show, he is the artist."

Photos: BR Fireworks _lowres
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Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.