Like a ship-borne invasion, armed to the teeth and under heavy security, a flotilla of barges will be towed this afternoon into Baltimore's Inner Harbor, ready to launch a battery of booming explosives across the city's skyline.
While no war has been declared on Charm City, the approximately 5,000 fireworks set to be detonated from the vessels in the first minutes of 2010 will make enough noise to sound like one.
"You absolutely have to wear protective earmuffs," said Doug Aller, the lead technician aboard the smallest of the three barges, describing the special headsets that he and his colleagues use to both communicate with each other and keep at bay the worst of the fireworks' thudding aural effects.
During the show, at least 1,000 police officers will be on hand around the harbor to prevent exuberance from becoming chaos. A swath of streets will be closed and tanker trucks, as usual, will be banned from downtown. If it rains heavily enough, the fireworks will go up Friday instead, at 7 p.m.
The pyrotechnics and their musical accompaniment will be coordinated through a computer program and triggered by signals beamed from a satellite, Aller said Wednesday morning at the barges' dock in a shipyard on Curtis Bay.
Aller and his crew were setting up the last of the shells, arrayed in dozens of wooden racks, trusses and other contraptions and wrapped in aluminum foil to prevent sparks from igniting fires.
On each barge, Aller said, "one guy will be on the computer and another will be watching the racks to make sure it's all performing the way it's supposed to."
If anything goes amiss during the 18-minute show, the operator of the firing console - who, like other crew members, will be behind a protective barricade known as a "shooter shack" - can override the computer program and shut down the troublesome section.
Aller's boss, Rocco Vitale, creative director of Pyrotecnico, a New Castle, Pa., company that is making its first appearance at Baltimore's New Year's Eve celebrations, said the fireworks industry "is doing great things" to make such events error-free.
"We make sure all measures are taken to ensure safety not only for our crews but for the public," said Vitale, whose ancestors, four generations ago, founded the company in 1889. "Fireworks are supposed to be fun."
Pyrotecnico was awarded the city's New Year's Eve contract earlier this year after a long run - interrupted just once in 30 years - by Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, which is also based in New Castle.
"They were great in pursuing us," said Tracy Baskerville, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, referring to Pyrotecnico. "With all the new technology, we thought it was a great time to make a change."
For the third consecutive year, Ports America, a harbor terminal operator, made the event possible, said Baskerville, who stressed that no money from taxpayers is used to pay for the party. This year, the company gave more than $100,000 to cover the midnight pyrotechnics as well as performances earlier in the evening by the a cappella group Part Harmony and the blues and rock band Blues Therapy at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater.
"The venue is so killer for fireworks, the way the harbor is set up," Vitale said, clearly excited to make good use of fireworks the company purchased overseas. "There'll be a massive wall of radiant colors, from the water to 800 feet in the sky."