THE HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL FIRE SPRINKLER ASSOCIATION
On November 22, 1905, three specialty contractors met in St. Louis, MO, to establish the National Automatic Sprinkler Contractors Association. In doing so, John Moore of the General Fire Extinguisher Company, W. G. Allen of Niagara Sprinkler Company, and George M. Myers of Standard Fire Extinguishing Company became the founding fathers of what is today the National Fire Sprinkler Association. The minutes of that meeting set out the original objectives: “To promote and improve the methods of fire protection, the discussion and consideration of all such matters as may be of general interest to the welfare, progress, and building up of the automatic sprinkler equipment business including all rules and regulations which have been, or may hereafter be, promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association and for the purpose of carrying out and obeying such rules and regulations as may be adopted and required by such association. And also to discuss and adopt such rules and regulations as will give the public the best service possible. Also to adopt such measures as will produce the best and most satisfactory equipment and give to the public the highest standard of fire protection that can be afforded by such systems. And further to take all necessary steps toward ascertaining and carrying out the laws of the country, that in any was affect the automatic sprinkler equipment business. And to adopt all other lawful measures that may be deemed necessary and proper to promote and protect the best interests of the Association.”
At the time the Association was formed it had only been 29 years since the original patent had been taken out by Henry Parmalee, considered the inventor of the first practical automatic sprinkler. It had been 25 years since Frederick Grinnell of the Providence Steam & Gas Pipe Co. patented his first sprinkler, leading to a series of improvements that ensured their acceptance by the insurance industry. And it had only been 9 years since a committee consisting of Frederick Grinnell and a number of insurance company representatives had published a uniform standard for the installation of sprinkler systems and, in the process, formed the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Aside from the general promotion of the industry, however, a key motivation for the formation of the Association was the desire to negotiate an agreement with the Sprinkler Fitters and Helpers Union #268 of St. Louis. This was the first specialty union for the installation of fire sprinkler systems, establishing the identity of a fire sprinkler industry separate and distinct from other pipe and mechanical trades.
Meeting in Chicago on May 6, 1914, the National Automatic Sprinkler Contractors Association officially changed its name to the National Automatic Sprinkler Association. At that time it also hired its first staff person, appointing Mr. Ira G. Hoagland as Secretary, at an annual salary of $4,000 per year.
Growing over the years, the Association in 1944 sought to include non-water fixed suppression systems within its range of activities by again changing its name, this time to the National Automatic Sprinkler and Fire Control Association. In 1947, the Association appointed its first “Fact-Finding Committee”, the predecessor of today’s Engineering and Standards Committee. The first Chairman was Ira Knight of the Grinnell Company, which had changed its name from the General Fire Extinguisher Company three years earlier.
In 1952 the NAS&FCA hired Raymond J. Casey, a young industrial relations specialist, as the Association’s first Executive Director. A few years later, following the lead of the NFPA, the top staff position was changed from Executive Director to President, and Ray Casey served in this capacity until his retirement in 1978.
While recognizing the importance of preserving the industry’s identity through its relationships with organized labor, Ray Casey also saw the need to increase the marketing efforts of the industry. The primary market for automatic sprinklers had always been factory and warehouse buildings, and the industry had grown steadily under the wing of the insurance industry. Yet some major fires with substantial loss of life had taken place in hotel properties in the 1940’s, which served to underscore the effectiveness of automatic sprinkler systems in saving lives.
In 1956, Edward J. Reilly, a high school history and social studies teacher, was hired and trained to work with the Association’s new Building Code Committee, proposing requirements and incentives for sprinklers in the three major model codes of the time: the Basic Building Code used predominantly in the Northeast and Mid-West, the Southern Standard Building Code used in most states in the South, and the ICBO’s Uniform Building Code used in most of the Western states. Ed was named Director of Codes and Standards, later served as Vice President of Marketing, and eventually as the Association’s President from 1978 to 1984.
In 1969 the Association released Automatic Sprinklers in Building Codes, a film that Ed Reilly helped write and produce, and which focused on the building code market. It discussed the role of the three model code groups, their growing requirements for sprinklers in a wide range of hotels, schools, nursing homes, and other occupancies, and the incentives achieved in those codes that made it more economical to include a sprinkler system in almost all new building designs. In 1973 John A. Viniello, a former student of Ed Reilly’s, was hired as his helper in the code field, serving as the Assistant Director of Codes and Standards.
In 1974 the Association was re-organized with separate Contractors and Manufacturers Councils under a combined Board of Directors. While the Association’s first field representative had been placed in California in 1961, the new Contractors Council had oversight of a national field program, and John Viniello moved to that arena, serving as the Northeast Regional Manager before being named as the Director of Regional Operations, with the goal being a team of eight regional managers to cover the nation, resolving industry problems at the state and local level while promoting sprinkler-friendly code adoptions.
In 1975 Russell P. Fleming, having just received a master’s degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,was hired as the Association’s first engineer on staff. With a strong background in technical publications, his first assignments were the completion of two long-awaited Association projects: the Sprinkler Plan Review Guide and the Architects’ and Engineers’ Guide to Automatic Sprinklers in Building Codes, both published by 1977. He went on to build a team that established the NFSA’s reputation as a leader in fire sprinkler technology and training. In addition to service on numerous NFPA technical committees and research projects, his technical career included stints as the Chairman of the NFPA Standards Council and President of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers.
By 1979, when the Association co-produced the film The Sprinkler Connection with the Canadian Automatic Sprinkler Association, the extraordinary era of building code gains for sprinklers in commercial and institutional occupancies had come to fruition. Further gains awaited in the areas of residential occupancies and building retrofit, but other incentives were also involved. The series of 1980 hotel fires with large losses of life not only increased awareness of the difference sprinklers could make, but also brought in the motivation of liability avoidance. With fire sprinklers so widely available and known to provide life safety from fire, how could builders and property owners justify their omission?
During the Reilly era, the Association found it advisable to determine what it could do as an organization, and what roles were best left to other organizations. The Association had developed into a broad-based umbrella organization for the fire sprinkler industry, including sprinkler manufacturers, component manufacturers, suppliers, and both union and open shop contractors. All of these groups were able to work together in activities that promoted and defended the industry. Yet when some of its open shop contractor members asked the Association to develop apprentice training programs, it was recognized that it might be considered a bad faith effort to do so while at the same time carrying out its historic function of representing its union contractor members in collective bargaining. As a result, the Association encouraged its open shop contractor members to form a separate organization for that purpose. They did so in 1981, and that organization became the American Fire Sprinkler Association, which continues to address some of the special needs of open shop contractors.
At about that same time, the manufacturers of non-water fixed suppression systems asked that the NAS&FCA increase its activities with regard to non-water systems. When the Association decided instead to focus solely on water-based systems, the Fire Suppression Systems Association was formed in 1982. As a result, in 1983 the Association again changed its name, this time to the National Fire Sprinkler Association.
In 1984 John Viniello was elected as President of the Association, a position he went on to hold for 28 years until his retirement in 2012. During this period the NFSA expanded its Contractors Council to represent 12 geographical areas across the country, each provided with a Regional Manager. Additional specialists were added in areas such as Codes, Training, Public Fire Protection and Inspection, Testing and Maintenance. Many of the new and expanded programs were made possible through the development of Industry Promotion Funds, funds which were negotiated as part of the collective bargaining agreements with organized labor.
In 1999 the NFSA formed the International Fire Sprinkler Association (IFSA) as a separate organization to encourage the use of fire sprinkler systems around the world. With NFSA providing the administrative services, the IFSA served as amechanism to help establish and fund the early growth of other national and regional organizations to promote the fire sprinkler concept. The European Fire Sprinkler Network (EFSN) and the AssociaçãoBrasileira de Sprinklers (ABSpk) of Brazil areamong the organizations founded with IFSA assistance.
In 2005 NFSA celebrated its 100th anniversary with an Annual Seminar in New York City. At that time the Fire Sprinkler Hall of Fame created by the NFSA was brought up to 100 individuals, honoring those who had left their mark on the Association and the industry.
In 2012 Russ Fleming was elected President of the NFSA, turning over the chief technical responsibilities to Kenneth E. Isman, a fire protection engineering graduate of the University of Maryland who had started with the Association in 1987. Stressing transparency, fairness and simplicity, the new administration worked to ensure that NFSA fulfilled its role as “the voice of the fire sprinkler industry,” representing all elements of the industry. In 2013, in conjunction with its Annual Seminar in Las Vegas the NFSA successfully sponsored the first North American Fire Sprinkler Expo®, in collaboration with the Canadian Automatic Sprinkler Association (CASA) and the Mexican Sprinkler Association (AMRACI).
By 2014, the NFSA’s Regional Operations program had grown to include 14 Regional Managers who, along with local Industry Promotion Directors, worked to promote the fire sprinkler conceptby organizing side-by-side burn demonstrations, promoting favorable state and local legislation, and speaking on behalf of NFSA chapters. Shane Ray, who had years earlier worked in the Association’s Public Fire Protection department, left his position as South Carolina State Fire Marshal to rejoin NFSA as Executive Vice President. With the departure of Ken Isman to the faculty of the University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering, Victoria Valentine was promoted to the position of Director of Engineering.
In May of 2015, at the 2nd North American Fire Sprinkler Expo®, Russ Fleming passed the baton to Shane Ray, with the Board of Directors electing him to become the 5th President of the Association.