Honoring an Industry Legend
In 1983, the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) created its highest honor, the Henry S. Parmelee Award, to recognize an outstanding individual who has dedicated himself or herself to the professional advancement of the fire sprinkler industry and the goal of fire safety through automatic sprinklers. The recipient of this year’s award has spent over 50 years dedicated to this industry and its people. His passion for serving the members of the fire protection community is inspirational. To say anyone who has the chance to speak with him can learn a substantial number of things is an understatement. For AFSA, it is an honor to announce that Kevin T. Fee, president of Reliable Automatic Sprinkler Co., Inc., will receive the 2022 Henry S. Parmelee Award.
Keeping it in the Family
Most 12-year-olds don’t know what they want to be when they grow up—but not Kevin Fee. All it took was one Thanksgiving, a videotape, and being surrounded by his family to change his life forever.
“One Thanksgiving, my father showed us this video—we were big on home movies. We’re all sitting in the basement getting fired up to see these movies, and suddenly, he puts on the 1958 Chicago school fire where they lost over 90 children. The whole school burnt to the ground; it was just a tragic event,” he recalls.
“I saw my brothers’ and sisters’ jaws just drop, like, ‘Why are we watching this on Thanksgiving when we are all together and happy?’ And then my father shut it off, and he said, ‘Do you know that you try to prevent fires from occurring, but if they do, there is a solution? And that building—those kids and teachers—their lives could have been saved if that building had a fire sprinkler system. That’s what I do. I make the sprinklers that go into those systems and protect lives and property. That [fire] could have been avoided.’ So, we then asked him, ‘Why don’t buildings have fire sprinklers?’ and he turned around with a smile, and he said, ‘That’s what I’m trying to figure out.’ That’s when I knew I wanted to be in the business to save lives and property,” reminisces Fee.
How did his father become a business owner, and how did Reliable come to be the company it was when Fee was a child? It all started with Fee’s grandfather, Frank J. Fee, a 17-year-old Irish immigrant who came to New York in 1889. Fee was able to find work as a laborer and began working as an apprentice in the plumbing industry. Fee went on to join a plumbing association, which later led to him opening his own plumbing and heating business. Fee continued his business until he was called to work on a project outside of his realm of experience—installing a fire sprinkler system.
While learning how to install a fire sprinkler system was a feat in itself, Fee ran into another problem while on his project. Given that Fee wasn’t in the industry, manufacturers didn’t want to sell their products to him. However, because the installation was for a VA hospital, Fee had support from the government, and together, they successfully sued the sprinkler industry. Of course, with any victory, there can be contingencies: the fire sprinkler manufacturers would sell to Fee but at an elevated price.
“He got so mad at the fire sprinkler industry he said, ‘You are trying to punish the wrong guy,’” Fee says. “My grandfather was a very intelligent man, but he was also a very tough man, mentally and physically. And he just said, ‘Great. I’m going to start my own fire sprinkler manufacturing company—and he did.”
Fee’s grandfather still had other businesses to tend to. Fee remembers when the torch was passed to his father, and he was given the chance to have an opportunity with Reliable. “When we were first in business, it was a company that he was putting a lot of time and effort into, but his first priority was the mechanical contracting company that he also had. And when Reliable took off, my grandfather said to my father, ‘Okay, you have two choices. Come with me and take over the contracting company, or you can have this sprinkler manufacturing company.’ My father said, ‘I’ve seen and grown up with you and watched how the pressures of being a contractor are. That’s not the life for me. I’ll take this small sprinkler manufacturing company and I’ll see what I can do with it.’”
It Started with a Broom
“Ever since I had a work permit, my father always said to all of us, ‘If you have any interest in working in the family business, you have to show that interest now and be dedicated and committed to that. And if you’re not, you’re not going to have an opportunity. It’s just the simple,’” Fee remembers. “The definition of that was, for all our Christmas holidays, Easter holidays, and summers, I worked in the factory. It was a phenomenal experience. When I first showed up at Reliable—and this might sound like a cliché, but it’s not—I said, ‘Okay, I’m ready.’ He then turned me over to Tony DelGuidice, who was the maintenance manager of the plant and all of the equipment. My father told Tony, ‘Well, here’s your summer helper! Present him with his equipment.’ And I thought, ‘Well, gee, that’s pretty cool—and then I was handed a broom—a freaking broom! When I was a part of the maintenance department, my first job was cleaning lavatories, sweeping floors, handling garbage, and doing landscaping. I was thinking, ‘What does this have to do with manufacturing sprinkler equipment?’”
Little did Fee know at the time, but his father was teaching him the value and importance of all jobs. Specifically, a clean facility was the starting basis of running a safe, productive, and successful environment for all its employees. After graduating with an MBA from Columbia University in 1973, Fee then went on to become a sales manager, vice president of sales, executive vice president, to finally, Reliable’s president and chief executive officer in 2015.
Associations Hold Power
Fee knows the value of an association. He credits his father for instilling that value within him. “I’m not sure that anybody has accomplished as much as my dad did through the trade associations because he beat it in our heads, and I mean beat it. He said, ‘Look, this industry goes nowhere without a strong trade association.’ He got involved with the only trade association within the sprinkler industry at the time— the National Automatic Sprinkler and Fire Control Association (NAS&FCA). He was the first person, the only person, to be both president and the chairman of the board of directors. At the same time, he got involved with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which he said was the big fire protection umbrella. He said, ‘You must get them to recognize the sprinkler industry and create standards that can help our industry,’” Fee recalls.
Fee held onto his father’s advice and made it paramount that he and Reliable continued to have as strong an involvement with associations as possible. “My involvement with the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) was a no-brainer because Reliable is always going to promote the fire sprinkler concept, and what better way than to do that than through a strong trade association as well as being committed to NFPA. I was involved with NFSA before AFSA originated. We were totally supportive of AFSA when it was formed because of the need for apprenticeship training programs for non-union contractors, and we understood that. As far as Reliable is concerned, we’re always going to gladly support both trade associations.”
As soon as AFSA opened membership to suppliers and manufacturers, Reliable joined. Fee has served on AFSA’s Manufacturers and Suppliers (M/S) Council, including a term as chairman in 1986. Further, Fee has been a member of NFPA since 1974. In 1981, Fee was elected to the then NAS&FCA board of directors (the association changed its name to NFSA in 1983). He was also elected as vice-chairman from 1987-1990, served two terms as chairman from 1990-1993, and was elected treasurer in 2008 for eight years. Fee has served on NFSA’s board of directors for over 40 consecutive years. During Fee’s time, he has been instrumental in the development of several successful programs, including:
• the Community Action Program for Sprinklers (CAPS), developed and implemented to highlight the features, benefits, and effectiveness of fire sprinklers in saving lives and property;
• the Suppliers and Manufacturers (SAM) Council, comprised of suppliers and manufacturers that were not fire sprinkler manufacturers, which brought new members to the association; and
• the Sprinkler Manufacturers Industry Fund (SMIF), with the help of Tom Gross of Viking and Bob Mead of Tyco, to support various programs to promote residential sprinklers and other valued initiatives in promoting the fire sprinkler concept.
Protection Around the Globe
Fee has always held a strong interest in wanting to save lives and property not only domestically but across the world. In 1999, he was one of the founding members of the International Fire Sprinkler Association (IFSA). “We have countries that are far older than ours, like France and the United Kingdom, for example, and their sprinkler markets aren’t as advanced as ours. The United States has developed the footprint of success for the worldwide development of the fire sprinkler industry. Instead of recreating the wheel, we can share our model with all countries to greatly reduce the time in which they can find success in the development of their respective sprinkler market.”
Fee served as IFSA’s first chairman of the board of directors for two terms from 2000-2003 and is presently a board member.
Big Plans for a Big Future
The fire sprinkler industry is constantly evolving, and Fee notes, “The best years of the fire sprinkler industry are in front us.” So, what does he foresee? “The future for me is not really the future, it’s the present,” says Fee. “I’m 72 years old; I don’t have many years left. The fire sprinkler industry has achieved tremendous growth and development over the last 100 years. However, the best is yet to come. The full potential in the areas of residential; inspections, testing, and maintenance; and the replacement of sprinklers where necessary has not yet been realized. This great potential will only materialize through a much greater financial support of our trade associations, which will be the focal point in making this happen.”
He continues, “The proper development of these markets will provide tremendous market growth which, in turn, will generate significant success which will help our industry to continually re-invest in ourselves.”
Fee also recommends that stronger enforcement of NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, is a step in the right direction. “There are some areas that will adopt it, but they won’t enforce it. If you go to Australia, fire services have NFPA 25, and they have their own standards and codes. In Australia, it is mandatory to inspect and test the system on a regular basis. Fire services have the responsibility to check the buildings to ensure that systems have been inspected and tested. Failure to comply can result in shutting down the building. That’s something we should be doing. If you’re in a fire scenario, you want to make sure your system is ready to go.”
One of Fee’s other suggestions is a push for more residential sprinklers. “Homebuilders are typically against residential sprinklers. One of the reasons is they think if homes are protected, it will destroy the market on rebuilding homes destroyed by fire. It’s purely an economic factor for them.”
He explains, “In the United States, we have 450,000 fires every year that are so severe, homes are burnt to the ground or just destroyed. Multiply that by 10 years, and that’s 4.5 million fires. People think always think that fire is never going to hit them. They’re wrong. Every year that you stay in your home, the probability increases. Those destroyed homes must be rebuilt. That market, which the insurance companies must pay to rebuild, is $8 billion per year. The entire sprinkler industry is about $8 billion. The homebuilders are afraid that if you put fire sprinklers in new homes, that’s going to affect that $8 billion. However, it’s not going to do that for at least the next 50 years because we aren’t retrofitting, so that market won’t decline any time soon.”
Fee continues, “On the other side, people don’t realize that if you have one million new homes being built at the average size of 2,500 square feet, that will take about 30 sprinklers. That’s a 30-million sprinkler head market. We already have a 50-million sprinkler head market; here’s another 30 million, plus the great potential of the development of the sprinkler replacement market. There we go! Sprinkler contractors, sprinkler manufacturers, and other manufacturers and suppliers of sprinkler equipment, are you listening?”
Family Matters, People Matter
Family is at the center of Fee’s values, though one person among all stands out. “What has been really important in my life has been my wife, Chris. We started going out when we were 12 years old. She knew our business, and she knew I always wanted to be a part of that business. So, she always knew what to expect. Like my father and brother, I traveled around the world too many times to count, and I missed a lot. But like my father, when I was home, I wanted to be with my family, and she supported me. She was there for our kids, and she was there for me, just like my mother was for my father. Chris learned so much from my mother. I’m going to be bold, and I’m going to say something, I have the three greatest kids who ever came into this world. I love them. I love their personalities. They’re just great. Chris deserves all the credit.”
Fee also makes it a priority to be involved in his six grandchildren’s activities, or the “six-pack” as he calls them: Bella (12), Alex (10), Harley (7), Charlie B. (7), Brody (5), and Alice (5). Whether he is getting on a plane to South Carolina to see his granddaughter’s swim meets, he’s headed to Los Angeles to see his other two granddaughters’ dance recitals, or going to many activities and events with his two grandchildren in his hometown of Garden City, New York, Fee doesn’t want to miss a beat.
Fee avidly supports fire departments, police funds, and anything related to children’s causes, but the main charities he contributes to are Autism for Kids and Cancer for Kids. Fee also serves on the board of directors for several other charities.
Common Voices, an advocates’ coalition determined to create a Fire Safe America and substantially funded by SMIF, is also close to Fee’s heart. Each of the advocates who serve on the coalition’s advisory committee has been directly affected by fire, whether they have lost a family member or are a burn survivor themselves. “My goal for Common Voices is to expand our advocates. We currently have nine. Why not have 50? We need one for every state.”
Fee explains, “Over 30,000 people every year in the United States are exposed to fire and they weren’t killed, but they were exposed to the smoke, and they have serious fire burns. I think everyone in the fire sprinkler industry should be mandated to visit a burn center. It’s so eye-opening how these people are affected. They have burns and scars; they’ve affected their bodies and impacted their lives. They have to live with that for the rest of their lives.”
Celebrating a Legend
AFSA will present Fee with its 2022 Henry S. Parmelee Award at AFSA41: Convention, Exhibition, and Apprentice Competition, to be held October 16-19 at the Bellagio Las Vegas. The presentation will be the highlight of the general session on Tuesday, October 18, as indicated by the accolades about this year’s honoree.
“Kevin feels the need to go above and beyond Reliable and support our entire industry,” says AFSA Chair of the Board Jack Medovich, Fire & Life Safety America, Richmond, Virginia. “We greatly appreciate his continued and undying support of AFSA and the entire industry.”
“I have had the privilege of knowing Kevin for close to 40 years. His personal dedication to the fire sprinkler industry is unsurpassed,” comments AFSA President Bob Caputo, CFPS. “More so, the dedication of his family as well as that of his Reliable family are second to none. AFSA has been a benefactor of that dedication and lifelong commitment since its founding in 1981. We are proud to recognize Kevin’s contributions to this association, our members, and this industry with AFSA’s highest award. Congratulations!”
“Honestly, there is not a person in this industry who has done more or fought harder to make sure that fire sprinklers are part of every construction project that is built,” comments Rex Schwendiman, vice president of system components and fabrication at Reliable. “He has made Reliable a leader in fire protection advocacy throughout the world and continues to do so today as he leads his company and those in the company to fulfill the mission of protecting and saving lives through the installation of fire sprinklers.”
“Kevin and my dad go back almost 40 years. Before we were Core & Main, we were called Long Island Pipe Supply, and we were one of Reliable’s only distributors of sprinkler heads and devices in the country,” remembers Bradley Moss, senior regional director of Core & Main. “I know Kevin through my dad, and he has very much been a fatherly figure in the business. To me, Kevin is the person I respect most in this industry today. We model a lot of our success from ways that [Kevin] led and managed. He is one of the most brilliant, innovative men I know. He takes calculated risks. When you think Reliable, you think Kevin Fee. He is a one-of-a-kind person and a larger-than-life character in the sprinkler world to us.”
“The key is that you have to do something you love,” Fee concludes. “You must do something you’re passionate about—that you want to grow, that you want to develop. You want to be dedicated. You want the responsibility to grow it and be successful, regardless of what job it is—like me with a broom!”
He continues, “I learned I needed to be responsible and to produce. Other people will be better off because of what I do. ‘The best is yet to come!’—those are the words I give to people. I hope they digest it, I hope they understand it, and I hope my call to action will be well-received!”
In conclusion, Fee would like to recognize the tremendous contribution that the family of Reliable employees, past and present, has made to the successful growth and development of Reliable. Without them, Reliable would not be where it is today, supporting our great trade associations and their remarkable advancement of the fire sprinkler industry.
Henry S. Parmelee Award Recipients
1983 John M. Rhodes, FM Global Research Corp.
1984 William J. Meyer, Central Sprinkler Corporation
1985 C. B. Hall, American Automatic Sprinkler Co.
1986 Harold L. Black, Central Fire Protection, Inc.
1987 Edward J. Reilly, Ed Reilly Associates
1988 Richard T. Groos, The Viking Corporation
1989 Ron Coleman, Chief, Fullerton Fire Dept., CA
1990 Frank J. Fee III, Reliable Automatic Sprinkler Corp.
1991 Dr. John M. Bryan, University of Maryland School of Fire Protection Engineering
1992 W. D. (Dave) Hilton, Chief, Cobb County Fire Department, GA
1993 J. Frank Riseden, AFSA President 1983-1991
1994 Haden B. Brumbeloe, Publisher, FPC Magazine
1995 Edward H. Smith, H.F.P. Corporation
1996 Tom Waller, Viking Fire Protection of the SouthEast
1997 Chester W. Schirmer, Schirmer Engineering Corp.
1998 Tom Siegfried, Retired Chief, Altamonte Springs, FL
1999 Donald D. Becker, Midland Automatic Sprinkler Co.
2000 Robert L. McCullough, AllSouth Sprinkler Company (awarded posthumously)
2001 Buck Buchanan, Central Sprinkler Corporation
2002 Frank M. Winiecki, General Sprinkler Corporation
2003 Jack Viola, H.F.P. Corporation
2004 Lowell Gillett, Fire Engineering Co., Inc. (retired)
2005 Joe Hankins, FM Global (retired)
2006 Art Cote, National Fire Protection Association
2007 Tom Groos, The Viking Corporation
2008 William E. Corbin, Mutual Sprinklers, Inc.
2009 Lloyd Ivy, AFSA Director of Membership (1986-2008)
2010 Marty Giles, VSC Fire & Security
2011 Willie Templin, American Automatic Sprinkler, Inc.
2012 Bob Rees, Sunland Fire Protection
2013 Russ Leavitt, Telgian Corporation
2014 James Golinveaux, Tyco Fire Protection Products
2015 George Wagner, Worsham Sprinkler Company
2016 Steve Muncy, AFSA President (1991-2016)
2017 Robert (Bob) G. Caputo, Fire & Life Safety America
2018 Kraig Kirschner, AFCON
2019 Manning Strickland, Strickland Fire Protection
2021 George DiMatteo, Ferguson Fire & Fabrication
2022 Kevin T. Fee, The Reliable Automatic Sprinkler Company
EDITOR’S NOTE: Do you know someone who should be nominated for AFSA’s highest honor, the Henry S. Parmelee Award? Nominations are accepted year-round at firesprinkler.org/afsa-awards.