Innovator Has Created a Lasting Impact on the Fire Protection Industry
“Brevity is the soul of wit.” This proverb comes from the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Anyone who knows Kraig Kirschner wouldn’t be surprised to know this is one of his favorite sayings. A man of few words, his articles are known for bullet points and a short, yet effective, style.
“Intelligent speech and writing should aim at using few words,” Kirschner commented, when notified that he had been selected as the American Fire Sprinkler Association’s (AFSA) 2018 Henry S. Parmelee award recipient. But we pressed this third-generation contractor and second-generation manufacturer to expand on his bullet list of accomplishments within the fire protection industry so that we could share why he is a perfect fit for this prestigious award.
Family Business Kirschner grew up in the industry as both his father and grandfather were involved in fire sprinkler contracting. In 1930, his grandfather Joe Mitchell founded Standard Automatic Sprinkler. His father Joe Kirschner founded Automatic Fire Control in 1952.
“Automatic Fire Control was a large contractor in the state of California at that time. My father had two degreed fire protection engineers on staff when there were only a total of five in the state at that time.”
Growing up, Kirschner worked in pipe fabrication and field installation before moving on to college where he earned two Bachelor of Science degrees: in animal science and agricultural business management. He cowboyed for a living and then returned to work for his father.
“My dad didn’t give me any breaks,” Kirschner remembers. “He made me join the union apprenticeship program and work my way up, even though I had two degrees, field experience, and was in my ‘20s. I eventually became a journeyman fitter for 669 and personally held contractors’ licenses in nine states.”
Over the years, Automatic Fire Control had many high-profile clients including Fox Film Studios, Gulfstream Aerospace, Mattel Corporation, and Southern Pacific Railroad and had contracts as far as Canada and Mexico.
In 1951, his father Joe founded Hythercanics to develop and promote his first fire sprinkler products, Kirschner says. “He chose the acronym AFCON to brand many of his products. The acronym was derived from Automatic Fire Control equals AFCON.”
AFCON manufactured UL-Listed and FM-Approved sprinkler heads from 1953 to 1973. The company later manufactured a complete line of fire sprinkler hanger products.
Joe Kirschner developed several ground-breaking products including the AFCON Model A sprinkler head:
- The first series FM-Approved standard spray sprinkler.
- The first sprinkler design to exclusively incorporate punch-press-manufactured operating components.
- The first spring-operated thermal mechanism.
In 1968, he invented AFCON’s Model A sway brace:
- First patented sway brace fitting.
- First Listed sway brace fitting.
- For 20 years, the only Listed fitting.
- Infinitely adjustable.
- Founding concept design adopted by competitors after original patent expired.
Kirschner took over for his father in 1981. He recognized that rapidly evolving fire sprinkler system design was being impacted by the construction industry’s expanding use of engineered structural building components. Kirschner wanted AFCON’s manufacturing effort to be directed toward a varied array of hanging and bracing products to address this rapidly evolving contracting and building environment. He knew that design and manufacturing from the contractor’s point of view would prove beneficial to AFCON and its customers. Under his leadership, the company reached a total of 28 patents owned. Kirschner also developed sway brace software and consulted on clients’ projects by providing advisory and standards advocacy.
“Beyond being just the face of AFCON, Kraig comes from a strong contracting background. He wasn’t just handed his family’s business, he had to earn it,” states John Deutsch, design manager at Shambaugh & Son, LP, Brea, California. “He put himself through school, earning a living on the rodeo circuit. He still wears his jeans and belt buckle with pride.”
“That same work ethic has driven Kraig to improve his family’s company and take the business to the next level. He always looks at product development from the end users’ point of view, making him a successful manufacturer. With Kraig’s leadership, AFCON has evolved from a successful regional fire sprinkler contractor to a major manufacturer of products used worldwide,” Deutsch concludes.
In 2017, Anvil International, one of the largest manufacturers of pipe fittings, pipe hangers, and piping support systems in the world, acquired AFCON.
“The AFCON acquisition strengthened Anvil International’s hanger and seismic bracing product line to offer the best fire protection package in the industry,” says Dean Taylor, vice president of Anvil International.
However, with the sale, Kirschner didn’t disappear from the industry. Currently, he is a consultant to Taylor in the areas of standards advocacy, research and development, and interfacing with national and local sprinkler associations.
Industry Involvement Kirschner is actively involved in many industry organizations. He is an honorary life member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and is a founding member of the NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, Hanging & Bracing Technical Committee. He was also an original member of the NFPA 13 AUT-HBS, ASCE 7 Correlating Committee.
“Kraig Kirschner exemplifies investing in the industry and in others!” comments Christian Dubay, P.E., vice president and chief engineer at NFPA. “Kraig has shared his technical expertise through the NFPA standards development process, serving on NFPA 13 for over 20 years. Early on Kraig took the time to invest in my technical development and always made time to answer questions, work through unique problems, or revisit the extensive history. I am grateful for his commitment to NFPA and his personal investment in my career. I have the utmost respect for Kraig and his technical expertise, and at the same time count him as a great friend of almost 20 years who I always enjoy catching up with on family and life – hopefully, over a glass or bottle of amazing wine!”
Kirschner also serves on Underwriters Laboratories’ (UL) 203, Standard for Pipe Hanger Equipment for Fire Protection Service, and UL 203A, Standard for Sway Brace and Restraint Devices for Sprinkler System Piping. He also consults on FM Global’s FM 2-8, Earthquake Protection for Water-Based Fire Protection Systems, and FM 1950, Seismic Sway Braces For Pipe, Tubing And Conduit.
Kirschner has also been active with the Fire Sprinkler Contractors Association of Southern California (FSCA). Founded in 1942, this organization has over 100 company members and has always included union and non-union. The association was FPC magazine’s 2017 organization of the year.
Kirschner is a current director and past officer of FSCA, and was also instrumental in starting its annual charity golf tournament which has raised over $1 million. Each year before the tournament, Kirschner, along with the other FSCA directors, hosts the exclusive Pelican Crew golf outing, an event he created over 22 years ago to thank the industry leaders who sponsor FSCA’s annual tournament.
“Pelican Crew participants come from across the country to golf in Newport Beach,” comments Kirschner. “There’s nothing better than playing beach golf in Southern California and connecting with these VIPs who support us. The FSCA is grateful to them, value their friendship, and want them to know that.”
Chip Lindley is president of FSCA. “Kraig’s many patents are a testament to his creativity and unique insight into the mind of the installer. Those who have had the pleasure of meeting Kraig will know immediately that he is throwback to a time when personal relationships meant everything and a man’s word was solid, like oak.”
Kirschner is also a past chairman of the Los Angeles Fire Protection Forum which was founded in 1939 and was the precursor to the local Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE). In addition, he has been a member of NFSA for 50 years and served as treasurer of his local NFSA chapter for 10 years.
In addition to developing and authoring patents, Kirschner has written over 50 articles for industry publications and made numerous presentations within the industry for fitters, Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs), and groups including AFSA, NFPA, and NFSA. He was also named Fire Protection Contractor (FPC) magazine’s 2009 Fire Person of the Year.
Kirschner has been heavily involved with AFSA for over 20 years. He has served on the Apprenticeship & Education, Convention, and Membership committees, and was a founding member of the Site Selection committee with past Chairman of the Board Willie Templin.
Kirschner remembers at his first AFSA function, he could “feel the integrity and humble, caring attitude of the Board of Directors and staff. I was surprised by their complete lack of pretention, self-promotion, and impressed by how dedicated they were.”
“At an early convention, Bob McCullough approached my wife Deborah and me, asking us to join him and his wife at their table which included many members of the Board of Directors and their wives – last names like Black, Giles, Strickland, Templin, Rees, and Viola. Years later, I asked Bob ‘Why me?’ and he replied ‘Like us, you’re an owner and a sprinkler man.’”
“Needless to say, my wife and I hold these men and their wives in the highest regard. Their ethos is evident right through the core of the AFSA Board and staff. Older to younger, they generously vest their time and talents for the betterment of their membership. I am seriously impressed with the quality, talent, and experience evidenced by the younger generation of the AFSA Board and staff. Their efforts and leadership will definitely surpass all expectations and guarantee AFSA’s continuing authority and prestige.”
Let’s Rodeo The fire protection industry isn’t the only field in which Kirschner excels. He is an honorary gold card holder in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, PRCA is the largest and oldest rodeo-sanctioning body in the world. Annually, the PRCA sanctions about 650 top-of-the-line multiple-event rodeos in North America
Kirschner also supports the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. The museum was founded in 1955 and collects, preserves, and exhibits an internationally renowned collection of Western art and artifacts while sponsoring educational programs to stimulate interest in the legacy of the American West.
Awards and Accolades The highest honor AFSA bestows upon an individual, the Henry S. Parmelee award was instituted in 1983 to recognize an outstanding individual who has dedicated him or herself to the professional advancement of the automatic fire sprinkler industry and to the goal of fire and life safety through automatic sprinklers. It is named for Henry S. Parmelee, who is recognized as the inventor of the first commercially successful closed sprinkler head.
“Kraig’s industry involvement as a contractor then as a manufacturer/supplier has very few parallels,” says AFSA Chairman of the Board Wayne Weisz, president of Cen-Cal Fire Systems, Lodi, California. “He has spent many years being an advocate for and supporter of AFSA, and has spent his entire life promoting this industry. I could write a small book about the good things he has done.”
AFSA Senior Vice President of Engineering & Technical Services Roland J. Huggins, PE, has known Kirschner for many years. “With Kraig’s prior contracting background combined with his knowledge from developing and manufacturing products, I’ve often called him to discuss the nuances of NFPA 13 criteria. Due to his depth of understanding, he’s almost the oracle of seismic. Not bad for a rodeo guy.”
“Not only is Kraig an astute businessman, he has been an active participant on many of AFSA’s committees throughout the years,” AFSA Past Chairman of the Board Jack Viola states. “He has donated his time, talents, and money to assist AFSA contractor and associate members on so many projects to promote the fire sprinkler industry. He is truly an association guy and great friend to our industry. It is with great pleasure that I congratulate my good friend on receiving the Parmelee award and wish him and Debbie success and health in all of their future endeavors.”
“Kraig Kirschner is who I think of when the Parmelee award in mentioned,” comments Past AFSA Chairman of the Board Manning Strickland, Strickland Fire Protection, Inc., Forestville, Maryland. “Kraig is truly a friend of the sprinkler industry. He is a man you want on your committee when you have an important task to get done. I have enjoyed my friendship with him and Deborah over the past 20 years. I have many fond memories of all the good times with Kraig, Marty, and many others over the years. Well deserved, my friend, and may God bless you and your family.”
“KK has the unique skill of being his own man while at the same time being a spokesman for our entire industry,” states AFSA Region 6 Director Mike Meehan, president, VSC Fire & Security, Inc., Virginia Beach, Virginia. “His business savvy has reaped him many rewards but it is his ethos to always stand on his own two feet and to seek out the good and the positive in life that is the real source of his extraordinary success. He is the only man I know that can use the popular and catchy phrase ‘This ain’t my first rodeo’ and have it be completely true.”
George DiMatteo, president of Ferguson Fire & Fabrication, Mansfield, Texas has been a friend and colleague of Kirschner’s for many years. “Kraig’s dedication to the promotion of the fire sprinkler industry and AFSA has been his priority since the beginning of his journey. The growth of his innovative company brand, AFCON, was a catalyst that allowed Kraig to drive change in our industry. His passion for constant improvement for our industry has never wavered, and he is part of that great generation that has laid the foundation for the change and growth we have experienced all these years.”
DiMatteo continues: “I am very proud and humbled to have witnessed the lifetime achievements that are being recognized with this highest honor, and I value Kraig’s friendship and mentorship.”
“Kraig is a leader in the Southern California fire sprinkler industry, both in hanger and bracing innovation and support of the industry,” says Randy Howell, president/ CEO, Kimble and Company, Huntington Beach, California. “I consider him a friend and a Southern California fire sprinkler historian. If you want to know some history Kraig is the guy. He is definitely one of the good guys.”
“Kraig believes in the nobility of the fire sprinkler industry,” states John Deutsch.“As everyone who has had the privilege of dining with Kraig knows, he ‘never eats rubber chicken’ and his favorite toast is ‘Here’s to enough!’”
AFSA Chief Operating Officer of Meetings & Events Marlene Garrett, CMP, concurs with those in the industry. “Kraig is so passionate about his support of AFSA. His involvement with the convention committees over the years has been instrumental in the success of these events. We truly value his work on committees and dedication to the industry. I am thrilled that Kraig is receiving this well-deserved honor.”
Kirschner shies away from all the accolades, instead preferring to shine a light on others. He notes the appropriateness of cowboy analogies to the AFSA Board and staff. To quote two:
- “They ride for the brand.”
- “They pay it forward.”
“AFSA has provided the best national platform to interact with my constituency and further my development professionally,” Kirschner says. “You get out what you put in… the way you put in.”
It’s obvious Kirschner has put “in” time and time again for the betterment of the industry as a whole. Viola notes that Kirschner has always been “an industry professional who continually gives back to the industry that he was born into and loves.”
DiMatteo echoes that sentiment. “Kraig is well deserving of the highest honor given by AFSA. He has spent a lifetime representing the core values this award represents, walking through life with pride, dignity, and the highest ethical standards I have ever witnessed. It’s in Kraig’s character to transform something good into something great, and he has never sat on the sidelines in our industry.”
Join fellow industry members in the nation’s capital as AFSA presents Kirschner with its 2018 Henry S. Parmelee award during AFSA37: Convention, Exhibition, & Apprentice Competition. The award will be presented to Kirschner during the general session on Tuesday, October 2.
“Kraig’s passion for the promotion of the sprinkler industry is unprecedented. There is no one that I know that is more generous with their time, praise, and goodwill,” comments Randy Nelson, CEO, VFS Fire & Security Services, Orange, California. “Kraig isn’t just a great ‘sprinkler man,’ he is without a doubt one of the great people in this world who I have had the good fortune of getting to know… not just as an industry professional, but as a friend. Congratulations to Kraig Kirschner!”