A Showcase for Apprentice Skills

Then AFSA Chair of the Board Don Becker (far left) and McCullough (far right) congratulated with the winner of the first NAC, Martha Grazier.

Honoring Robert L. McCullough, Founder of the NAC

Thirty years ago, the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) established the National Apprentice Competition (NAC) to promote apprentice training and recognize the apprentices actively enrolled in the AFSA apprenticeship program. Everyone in the industry knows what the NAC is, but do they know how it began? In this article, Sprinkler Age looks back at the rich history of how the NAC came to be and explores the vision of its founder, past AFSA Chair of the Board Robert (Bob) L. McCullough.


Success cannot be its strongest when it’s individual—instead, it is maximized when it’s collaborative. McCullough exuded this belief in the success of the fire sprinkler industry with his heavy involvement in many associations, including the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA), American Subcontractors Association (ASA), Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC), Associated General Contractors (AGC), Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI), Georgia Fire Sprinkler Association (GFSA), National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE).

McCullough was first introduced to the fire sprinkler industry in 1957 when he began working for “Automatic” Sprinkler Company of America in Youngstown, Ohio. After serving in the Marine Corps, McCullough founded Allsouth Sprinkler in Lilburn, Georgia, with his son John McCullough in 1969. In its entirety, McCullough’s career in the industry would span nearly 40 years.

In 1982, McCullough officially joined AFSA. “Like most small business owners without a support staff, I put in long hours studying my options,” McCullough commented in June 1997. “In the summer of 1982, I learned of a merit shop sprinkler association that had just been formed. Their mission was to educate and train their members. Joining AFSA was one of the easiest and perhaps the smartest business decisions I made as a sprinkler contractor.”

McCullough was active on AFSA’s Legislative Committee and chaired the Apprenticeship & Education Committee (then known as the Education & Apprenticeship Committee) and Fire Sprinkler Public Education & Awareness Committee. He was elected to the AFSA Board of Directors in 1989 and served as Chair of the Board from September 1996 through September 1998.


McCullough said it best by stating, “The mission of AFSA is to educate and train our members, and since this is a never-ending process in the sprinkler industry, take advantage of what we have to offer. Remember, the only advantage one sprinkler company has over another is trained employees.”

McCullough believed that an educated employee “is your best asset” and “for a sprinkler contractor, training programs are the key to success.” These beliefs fueled his drive to better the fire sprinkler industry and create programs that could foster its success.


McCullough was instrumental in the formation of AFSA’s Annual National Apprentice Competition, as well as the early development of AFSA’s four-level apprenticeship training series.

In 1994, the first-ever NAC took place at AFSA’s 13th Annual Convention and Exhibition in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As reported in Sprinkler Age in September 1994, the Education & Apprenticeship Committee is credited with the idea of hosting the competition. Committee members wanted to showcase and recognize AFSA apprentices and training programs. When McCullough became chair of this committee in January 1994, he took on the challenge to organize and promote this event.

“Originally, AFSA was developed for apprenticeship training. It is the backbone of the association. This competition will focus the spotlight where it should be—back onto our highly rated training programs,” stated McCullough to Sprinkler Age. “I believe the contractors who watch will take back the message to their company that training is vital to our industry. More than at any other time in our history, we need properly trained workers.”

Phase I of the national competition consists of a 100-question multiple-choice exam taken online. Seven finalists compete in Phase II, which is held during AFSA’s annual convention. This phase consists of a three-hour exam and the requirement to cut, thread, and install a steel and CPVC piping system with sprinkler heads and perform a pressure test. Participants are graded on accuracy, craftsmanship, and safety.


Members of AFSA mourned the loss of McCullough on March 25, 2000, due to a sudden heart attack. Later that year, the AFSA Board of Directors voted and approved the creation of an award to honor McCullough for his dedication to the competition and to apprentice training. The Robert L. McCullough AFSA Training for Excellence Award is displayed each year at the NAC and is housed at AFSA’s headquarters. The award features the winner’s name of each competition, dating back to the first year.

McCullough’s dedication to the fire sprinkler industry was evident in numerous ways. In addition to the NAC, he created AFSA’s first scholarship essay contest for high school seniors to raise awareness about the life- and property-saving benefits of fire sprinklers. AFSA honored his commitment by bestowing its highest honor, the Henry S. Parmelee Award, posthumously in 2000.

“It was my privilege to have worked with Bob McCullough … He was a dedicated leader, an ardent proponent of training, and a good friend,” said Steve Muncy, AFSA’s president from 1991-2016, at the time of McCullough’s passing.

“My father was heavily involved in building the foundation for the apprenticeship program and competition,” McCullough’s son John told Sprinkler Age in 2017. “His contributions and accomplishments have been of great value to me, our company, and to our industry. Of all the things that he taught me, investing in education is the most crucial to the development of our younger generations.”


While the NAC started as a small vision 30 years ago, it has grown to be bigger and better than ever today. The NAC is more than just a competitive good time among fellow fire sprinkler apprentices. Ultimately, the NAC prepares apprentices with countless hours of studying, learning, and mastering the fine art that is fire sprinkler installation, and inspires apprentices to always strive to do more.

If there was ever a competition you didn’t want to miss—it’s this one! Join AFSA at AFSA42: Convention, Exhibition & Apprentice Competition from September 6-9, 2023, at Signia by Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek and cheer on the competitors at NAC’s 30th anniversary in McCullough’s honor. This year, the competition will take place in the center of the exhibition hall, as opposed to being on one side—placing all the excitement front and center for all convention attendees! After all, “If these young people are truly interested in this industry, these courses will accelerate their knowledge of the business. The books will stabilize your workforce,” McCullough stated in October 1996. “The employees understand that as [apprentices] pass certain levels, they will receive pay raises, and, of course, we all turn out better product, which is the ultimate goal of a high-tech industry.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the National Apprentice Competition, visit www.firesprinkler.org/competition.

1994 Martha Grazier, Advanced Fire Protection, Woodville, WA
1995 Brian Rouleau, Eastern Fire Protection, Auburn, ME
1996 Chris Lizakowski, Dakota Fire Protection, Grand Forks, ND
1997 David Koopman, Southeast Fire Protection, Inc., Houston, TX
1998 Brandon Folse, Affordable Fire Protection, Norcross, GA
1999 Christopher Springston, Noremac Sprinkler, Wrentham, MA
2000 Raphael Diaz, Central Connecticut Fire Protection, Inc., Meriden, CT
2001 Bruce White, Wyco Fire Protection, Longmont, CO
2002 Jeffrey Long, Central Connecticut Fire Protection, Inc., Meriden, CT
2003 Richard A. Russo, Jr., Connecticut Fire Protection Company, Inc., Milford, CT
2004 Justin Kopacz, H.F.P. Sprinkler of South Hadley, Westfield, MA
2005 Kyle Hawes, HTH Automatic Sprinkler LLC, Goshen, CT
2006 Rick Childs, HFP Fire Sprinkler, Inc., Westfield, MA
2007 Chase McLane, Rapid Fire Protection Inc., Rapid City, SD
2008 Kenneth Danes, American Fire Protection, Nampa, ID
2009 Joseph Giguere, Rustic Fire Protection, Norton, MA
2010 Mark Winder, Rapid Fire Protection, Inc., Rapid City, SD
2011 Tory Bousum, USAutomatic Sprinkler Corporation, Carmel, IN
2012 Joseph Perry, Jr., HTH Automatic Sprinkler, LLC, Goshen, CT
2013 Steven Arnaud, Aegis Fire Systems, Pleasanton, CA
2014 Jordan Bretey, Rapid Fire Protection, Inc., Salt Lake City, UT
2015 Jared Sutliff, Cen-Cal Fire Systems, Lodi, CA
2016 Jonathan Offord, Commonwealth Fire Protection, Leola, PA
2017 Chance McCollister, Fire Tech Systems, Inc., Shreveport, LA
2018 Bryan Teddick, HTH Automatic Sprinkler LLC, Goshen, CT
2019 W. M. Headrick, Rapid Fire Protection, Inc., Bismarck, ND
2020 Competition Canceled due to COVID-19
2021 Matthew Tyre, Titan Fire Protection, Inc., Vista, CA
2022 Jacob Hanson, Security Fire Sprinkler, Sauk Rapids, MN
2023 Will it be YOU?

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