The Industry’s Next Generation
I was given the task of writing an article on a day in the life of a sprinkler fitter. Before I do that, I need to take a minute to acknowledge and pay respect to the pioneers and veterans of this industry because, without them, this trade would not be where it is today.
The fire sprinkler industry has come a long way, and I know that everyone has heard stories from the past, including me. Stories have been told about threading and manhandling massive pipe, wooden jack ladders, scaffolding to chain tongs, and back-breaking endless days and nights. These stories have laid the foundation, and, as a rookie, I have hung on the edge of my seat anytime I was told one of these incredible tales as if I was listening to Homer rant one of his tales from The Odyssey. These stories are what have made me love what I do.
Unlike many of you, I am not a legacy in the fire sprinkler field, and before I started working, I didn’t even know what a sprinkler was or what it did. I know that seems crazy. It was almost six years ago that I was given a shot to prove myself. Believe me when I say that being a fitter is not for the faint of heart. It takes a strong few who excel in hard work, dedication, pride, and respect for and in what you do to make it in this field.
I began my career as a “gopher,” and my supervisor was my best friend. That was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. If you think this meant him taking it easy on me, you couldn’t be more wrong. He ran me through the wringer, and my days were filled with “Get this” and “Get that.” I remember one day at a high-rise, and, for some odd reason, only I wasn’t allowed to use the elevators. He had me running stairs for tools or materials that he miraculously didn’t need when I returned. No lie, after the last time up and down those stairs, I wasn’t happy, and quitting was at the top of mind plus a vocabulary of curse words. I really almost quit more than once; however, this is where my dedication came in to play. I buckled down and decided this career chose me, and what I did could mean the world to someone one day. I realized that we were in the business of saving lives, giving time to a teacher to move students to safety, or time for a nursing staff to remove patients from a burning building. If we did our job properly and effectively, then it also meant saving firefighters’ lives. Unlike a firefighter, I don’t run into the burning building when a fire breaks out; I am already there. The flames have activated me to react, and I am racing through the pipes and down the sprinkler head to save lives. I am the fire sprinkler system.
I was trained to watch every little thing that my supervisor, Foreman Brian Pittman, did and was amazed by how much he knew. He knew the codes and standards like he was a fire sprinkler encyclopedia. I was lost at first, but I knew by doing all he asked of me, and by paying attention, I would soak it all up and be as good as he was and reach a goal that I set for myself. Looking back, I was being taught the importance of ensuring I knew what tools and materials were needed for a job, time is valuable, and dedication is key. I can’t remember if I ever did thank him for all he taught and showed me, but I really appreciate all he did for me.
As a helper, I was searching for the next step. Our Commander and Chief Linda Biernacki, president of Fire Tech Systems, Inc., and AFSA Second Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, has always wanted to better her team members with all the best training. It was natural that she urged me to join the apprenticeship program. Every safety meeting I attended, Linda talked about: training, the AFSA apprenticeship program, a career in the industry, and the tools available to me as a team member. It is a part of our culture. I wasn’t too sure about it at first. Fire Tech Systems supported me, and it really helped that the program had an awesome teacher that I could trust and had my best at heart—thanks, Tracy [Fire Tech System’ Project Coordinator/Safety Director Tracy Hadwin]! So, I decided to make that leap. It was the next link in the chain that I call my career.
When I was accepted into the apprenticeship program, I dove in hard. I put in long days and even longer nights, all while studying, testing, and sometimes failing. I knew I could do it and succeed because I knew I had what this field demands in a person who dares to stare it in the face and not run scared. I rose in the ranks from gopher to apprentice.
Reminding myself every job is different, and each one is a learning experience is something important to me. Missing one small detail from a drawing because it seems to look the same as the last one can cause serious problems. All drawings, buildings, ceiling, walls, stairs, etc. have a variation, and it’s my job to know, so the system works correctly. The excitement for me comes when I start putting all the pieces of the system together and realize, “Wow, what I am doing saves lives!” It will make your hands sweat and head swim. But not me—I know that I was made for this; I found my calling. The smile on my face and the puffing of my chest tells me that every time—I love my job!
Finally, all my hard work paid off, and in 2018 I was honored to be a part of the AFSA National Apprentice Competition in Washington, D.C. Although I didn’t win, I met an amazing group of guys—better yet, brothers—who I competed against. We stood proudly side by side to show this world that there are up and comers or NextGens who have what it takes to become the next veterans of an industry we call home. We came to D.C. never having met and working for different companies but had one thing in common—fire sprinklers’ best at heart. To be alongside those guys and give it my all—sweat, blood, and tears—made one of the best memories to date.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what company you work for, union or non-union, because we are all one. I wholeheartedly believe that if you want to make a difference and you do not mind a little dirt and grime, join me, and I will welcome you in open arms as a brother or sister into this industry. We are the next generation that helps carry on the fire sprinkler industry.
Once again, I say THANK YOU to the pioneers and veterans alongside my supervisor and Fire Tech Systems team. I am so grateful for a job that I truly love!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: J.D. Hilliard is foreman with Fire Tech Systems, Inc. in Shreveport, Louisiana. He graduated from AFSA’s apprenticeship training program and competed in AFSA’s National Apprentice Competition in 2018.
EDITOR’S NOTE: AFSA’s fire sprinkler fitter apprentice training series has been developed through combined efforts of technical experts and AFSA contractor members. Visit www.firesprinkler.org/fittertraining.