Joe Headrick, Rapid Fire Protection, Inc., Bismarck, North Dakota, was named AFSA’s top apprentice at the 2019 National Apprentice Competition

Headrick Wins National Apprentice Competition Top

Talent Competes During AFSA38

The stage was set. It was October 4, 2019, and hundreds of onlookers flooded into the bustling exhibit hall at AFSA38: Convention, Exhibition & Apprentice Competition in San Diego, California, to witness the 26th Annual National Apprentice Competition hosted by the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA). This annual competition gives seven hopefuls the chance at winning $5,000, tools, and bragging rights! 

After a written test outscoring over 100 other apprentices to secure a spot as one of the seven apprentice finalists, Joe Headrick, Rapid Fire Protection, Bismarck, North Dakota, advanced to the competition finals in San Diego as one of those hopefuls. From there, Headrick surmounted his toughest task yet—outscoring the six other top contenders to take home first prize in AFSA’s 2019 National Apprentice Competition.

Working to Nationals

Joe Headrick is no stranger to the fire sprinkler industry; however, he is the first in his family to pursue a trade. After graduating high school, Headrick originally pursued a career in drywall, but quickly looked to fire sprinklers, recognizing the trade’s status as an industry with career advancement opportunities—among numerous other benefits. 

Headrick recalls that he first heard about the competition in 2018 from his regional manager, Randy Ables, in 2018. Ables, a former National Apprentice Competition finalist himself, encouraged Headrick to participate in the 2018 competition. While Headrick did not qualify for the 2018 competition in Washington, D.C., he didn’t let that discourage him. Instead, he used that opportunity as motivation to test again in 2019. Headrick recalls, “I was a little further along in my training this year, so I did a bit better, but everyone in the company was really encouraging about it–—both tries.”

Headrick began to diligently study in the months leading up to the first written qualifying test in 2019. “I studied all the review questions in the books, and answered them to the best of my ability,” he said. “I kept studying them until I knew how to get them right, and just made sure to pay close attention to the parts of the modules that felt important.”

He added, “It was lots of reading, double reading, triple reading.” However, all of this hard work paid off in a big way when he landed himself a spot as one of the top seven apprentices in the nation, securing his place in the live competition at AFSA38 in San Diego.

However, with the arrival of AFSA38, came a whole new set of challenges for the apprentice hopefuls. All competitors advancing to the national competition participate in another written exam as well as the live competition during their stay in San Diego. Headrick mentioned that he was, “excited to go to San Diego because I’d never been to California! I was more pleased than anything at the opportunity to represent the company I work for, but I was still nervous because I hoped to represent them well.” 

San Diego Showdown 

The National Apprentice Competition at AFSA38 consisted of two portions: a written test, based on all four levels of AFSA/NCCER Contren® Learning Series Sprinkler Fitter curriculum, followed by a live competition practical in the AFSA exhibition hall. 

For four hours on Friday, October 4, the seven apprentice finalists participated in the live competition by constructing and pressure-testing a miniature sprinkler system in front of a bustling exhibition hall. Each finalist was given a drawing of the system and all of the required materials to install it. Finalists then constructed the system, comprised of five sprinklers, onto a 9-ft tall metal frame structure. Competitors had to measure, cut, thread, and use fabricated materials for the installations per the drawing they were provided. This exercise required pipe threading, math, and pipe make-up skills to complete the mini-system within the four-hour time limit.

Headrick noted with a laugh, “It’s a unique experience, that’s for sure. It’s only six guys you’re working with, but to have 30 to 40 people staring at you while you try not to make a mistake is pretty nerve-wracking.”

The CPVC section of the system was joined using one-step solvent cement. After the entire system was installed and allowed to set, it was placed under a static water pressure test of approximately 80 psi, with points deducted for any leaks or pressure drop. Judges for the 2019 competition were Dwight Bateman, Southeast Fire Protection, LP, Houston, Texas; Don Kaufman, Kaufman Fire Protection Systems, Inc., Albuquerque, New Mexico; Dave Karrick, Aegis Fire Systems, Inc., Pleasanton, California; Brett Heinrich, Bamford, Inc., Kearney, Nebraska; Jack Viola, P.E., JFV Engineering, LLC, South Hadley, Massachusetts; and Jeff Phifer of Crawford Sprinkler Co. in Lugoff, South Carolina.

During the mini-installation, the apprentices were judged in three areas—accuracy, craftsmanship, and safety— to form their practical score, which was then combined with their written test score to determine the winner.

Apprentice Crowned at Awards Party

At the exhilarating Awards Party at SeaWorld San Diego later in the evening of October 4, the hard work of the seven national apprentice competitors was recognized and Joe Headrick was named as the 2019 National Apprentice Competition winner. 

Headrick said when he heard his name it was “surprising.” He recalls, “It was a really cool moment. My heart actually kind of dropped, initially and I think I said ‘What?’ out loud.” Though the competition was over, and the winner crowned, Headrick acknowledges that it was a big surprise because he felt like all the competitors were strong and held a good chance of winning. Headrick continues, “I definitely got butterflies after the announcement.”

In addition to joining an exclusive group of past winners, Headrick received a $5,000 grand prize. Looking to the future Headrick said, “I will continue to work hard toward my goal of furthering the industry.” Headrick also mentioned that he wanted “to thank my family and my parents and my immediate employers for helping me to have this opportunity.” 

Ables was thrilled with Headrick’s win. “Joe has always brought a great attitude and amazing work ethic to the Rapid Fire team. I have been in his shoes as a competitor in this event, but to me, it is more fulfilling being on the supervisor side of it and seeing his progression and growth from laborer, to apprentice, to being a handful of tests away from completing the AFSA apprenticeship program. And then—he not only competes but wins the AFSA competition!” Ables continued, “I am very proud and happy to see him succeed in the fire sprinkler trade, and that his hard work is paying off.”

Ricky Sutter won second place.

Ricky Sutter of JPI Development Group, Inc., Murrieta, California won second place and a $3,000 cash prize, and Federico Martinez, Jr. with Western Fire Protection, Inc., Poway, California took third place and the $2,000 prize. Honorable mentions received $1,000 prizes: Fernando Arias, A & D Fire Sprinklers, Inc., Anaheim, California; Brian Feeney, Piper Fire Protection, Clearwater, Florida; Kevin Trella, Central Connecticut Fire Protection, Meriden, Connecticut; and Jared Whitten, Sunland Fire Protection, Jamestown, North Carolina.

Federico Martinez, Jr. won third place.

In addition to the cash prizes and an expense-paid trip to San Diego to compete at AFSA38, each of the national finalists received a commemorative plaque, tools, and a complimentary convention registration for their employer to attend the convention to cheer them on.

Back to the Beginning

Started in 1994 by the late Robert L. (Bob) McCullough, then chairman of the Apprenticeship & Education Committee, AFSA’s Annual National Apprentice Competition was created to promote apprentice training and give recognition to the apprentices who are actively enrolled in the AFSA Apprenticeship Program. Over 20 years later, the competition continues to bring fire sprinkler apprentices from AFSA local chapter and member training programs from all corners of the United States together in the association’s foremost showcase of excellence in training among future industry leaders.

Enrolling in AFSA’s apprentice training program not only offers excellent education and a fulfilling career, but it is also the gateway to competing in the AFSA National Apprentice Competition. Entry forms for next year’s event at AFSA39: Convention, Exhibition & Apprentice Competition at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek in Florida, September 13–16 will be available spring of 2020. For more details visit To view additional photos of the action, visit AFSA’s Flickr photo page at

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rebecca Herring is the communications and advertising coordinator for the American Fire Sprinkler Association.

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