UNIVERSITY PARK — Marty Dreibelbis and Steve Updegrove spent most of Saturday assembling shell tubes for fireworks in preparation for Central PA 4th Fest.
The two were on the receiving end of another group of volunteers who were unloading equipment from a delivery truck.
Saturday marked the first day volunteers gathered at the grounds behind Medlar Field at Lubrano Park to prepare for what’s billed as one of the largest fireworks displays in the country.
Matt Lindenberg, organizer and co-chairman of pyrotechnics, said its biggest competition is a fireworks show in New York that has more shells, but less unique presentations.
“What they do is fire them from five different barges and duplicate the same display,” Lindenberg said. “We have something different each time.”
This year, the event will feature more than 10,700 fireworks — a set size that is about average for the fest, Lindenberg said.
The show’s theme is “Let Freedom Ring,” and will include its largest set piece since the festival turned into a nonprofit organization in 2002.
Lindenberg would not share details of the show so it’s a surprise for viewers, but he said the set piece is 48 feet wide by 32 feet tall, and includes patriotic, pop and movie theme music to go with the firework arrangements.
Last year, its set pieces were Angry Birds displays.
“When the Fourth comes, people ask, ‘So, have you been setting up for a couple days?’ ” Lindenberg said. “We tell them, ‘No, we’ve been here for two weeks.’ There’s that much to do.”
But the planning process is a yearlong activity.
“We had this year’s music selected last fall,” Lindenberg said. “We already have ideas for music next year.”
With an annual budget of $250,000, Lindenberg said this year’s event comes “pretty close to that.”
“It seems like a lot, but it’s really a small budget because of the number of volunteers who help out,” Lindenberg said.
Local businesses also donate lunch and dinner for the volunteers, and car dealerships provide vehicles to transport the equipment to and from the grounds
“It’s an all-encompassing community effort,” Lindenberg said.
Lindenberg estimated that each year, 125 to 130 volunteers help in day-to-day preparation.
During the weekend, the volunteers helped with the bulk of the infrastructure work, unloaded delivery trucks with equipment and planned to have the firework mounts laid out by Sunday afternoon.
By midweek, firework shells will start to be delivered, Lindenberg said. About three days before the fest, fireworks will be filled in the shell tubes. In the final days before July 4, classified as “buffer days,” volunteers make sure everything is in order.
Sue Salvaggio has been volunteering for about 15 years participating in everything from trash cleanup to sorting shells.
But her work this weekend was unloading trailers, driving the Kubota and delivering water to other volunteers.
“The best part is being able to meet new people and make new friends,” she said.
And the group got extra helping hands from 25 court-appointed community service volunteers.
“It’s just been a lot of picking things up and putting them down,” said Dan Seith, of eastern Pennsylvania.
Seith, a Penn State student, was charged in March with possession of drug paraphernalia at a State Patty’s Day party on Penn State’s campus.
The charges were dropped after he agreed to participate in a day’s worth of community service work.
“It’s actually been nice helping out,” he said.
The community service volunteers are assigned to two days of planning and two days of cleanup — July 5 and 6, Lindenberg said.
“We’ll take all the help we can get,” Lindenberg said.
Lindenberg said he hopes to organize another successful show.
“We make sure, first and foremost, everyone is being safe,” he said. “We put the veterans on the shells and train the new people for what to do.”
Each year there are minor malfunctions often due to rain that tampers with the fireworks from exploding, but not enough of a flub for the audience to notice, Lindenberg said.
Once the fireworks presentation is over, crews fire the shells again electronically to make sure they are all exploded. If that doesn’t work, volunteers will then check each shell and manually light the ones that didn’t detonate, Lindenberg said.
“Knock on wood, we’ve never had an accident,” Lindenberg said. “We pride ourselves on being prepared and safe.”
But for the volunteers, it’s all about being part of something great.
“It’s an amazing feeling when you watch the show at the end of the night and know that I did something to make that happen,” Salvaggio said.
Britney Milazzo can be reached at 23104648. Follow her on Twitter @ M11azzo.