Membership in the winner’s circle of the American Fire Sprinkler Association’s (AFSA) 23rd Annual National Apprentice Competition has its privileges. Just look at this year’s champion, fire sprinkler fitter Jonathan Offord.
Despite having a background in plumbing, Offord says he did not find the fire protection industry, rather it found him. In March 2015, the Baltimore, Maryland-native was contacted by a temp company about a job with Commonwealth Fire Protection in Leola, Pennsylvania. The 32-year-old father of five jumped at the opportunity.
Offord had only been hanging sprinkler pipe for a year when he was encouraged to enter the competition. He explains, “[My superintendent] told us that the company would support anyone who would like to compete, so I thought, why not? What do I have to lose?”
Despite being only the second employee from Commonwealth to compete and not fully knowing what to expect, Offord committed to his craft, studying all four levels of the AFSA Apprenticeship Program books for the weeks leading up to the competition. He recalls with a laugh, “I lucked out. My wife quizzed me on the test, and Commonwealth had me practice by putting pipe in its training trailer. Our company is very supportive of training.”
Accuracy, Craftsmanship and Safety
The road to nationals started for all this year’s 140 apprentices with a two-hour proctored, written qualifying exam June 11 at a local testing facility. The top seven scoring apprentices advanced to the National Apprentice Competition, held during AFSA’s 35th Annual Convention & Exhibition, A Grand Ole Opportunity: AFSA in Nashville, September 14-17 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Having recently earned a psychology degree from Argosy University, Offord is no stranger to studying, but he was surprised at the difficulty of the AFSA qualifying exam. “The test was very advanced and covered all four levels. When I found out I made it [to the national competition], it was an amazing feeling.”
At the national competition on Friday, September 16, the seven finalists took a second, more thorough written examination based on all four levels of AFSA/NCCER Contren® Learning Series Sprinkler Fitting curriculum.
For four hours the next day, the seven apprentice finalists, including Offord, constructed and pressure-tested a miniature sprinkler system in front of a jam-packed exhibition hall. Offord tried his best to block everything out. “My biggest concern was the crowd,” he recalls. “I had to try to block out the crowd, my wife, my coworkers, the judges, the photographer – everything. I told myself, this is what we do everyday.”
In the practical portion of the competition, each competitor was given a drawing of the system and all the required materials to install it. Finalists then had to construct 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 installation per the drawing. This showed pipe threading, math, and pipe make-up skills to complete the mini-system within the four-hour time allotment.
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 with points deducted for any leaks or pressure drop.
Collectively, all of his training helped Offord prepare for the physical and mental aspects of the competition. “It took everything I had, but I was confident in my measurements and that everything was plum.”
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.
The competition judges were: Dwight Bateman, Southeast Fire Protection, Houston, Texas; Don Kaufman, Kaufman Fire Protection, Albuquerque, New Mexico; Jack Medovich, Fire & Life Safety America, Hanover, Maryland; Bernie Parsons, Wayne Automatic Sprinklers, Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina; Jeff Phifer, Crawford Sprinkler Co. of S.C., Lugoff, South Carolina; Jack Viola, JFV Engineering, LLC, South Hadley, Massachusetts; and Meaghen Wills, Anchor Fire Protection, Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania. AFSA Vice President of Engineering & Technical Services Roland Huggins, P.E. assisted with the oversight of the competition.
Apprentices Honored at Country Music Hall of Fame
At the Country Music Hall of Fame under the soaring 40-ft glass windows overlooking downtown Nashville, Apprentice Competition Judge Don Kaufman recognized the seven national apprentice competition finalists and crowned its winner – Jonathan Offord.
Recalling the moment when he heard his name called, Offord said, “I still start to tingle inside when I think back to hearing my name called out. I did the best I could and for it to pay off was amazing. It was an honor.”
In addition to bragging rights, placing first in the competition earned Offord the $5,000 grand prize. Looking forward, Offord says he plans to “stay in the field” and he loves doing a job where he can “help [his] community and change lives on a daily basis.”
Logan Moser with Mutual Sprinklers in Tyler, Texas won second place and a $3,000 cash prize, and Joseph Mientkiewicz with SimplexGrinnell in Rochester, New York took third place and a $2,000 prize. Honorable mentions and $1,000 prizes were awarded to: Thomas Adams, J.G. Tate Fire Protection Systems, Poway, California; John Cowger, Rapid Fire Protection, Inc., Rapid City, South Dakota; Gregory Schneider, Superior Fire Protection, Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Donald Stone, Western Fire Protection, Inc., Poway, California.
Kaufman said, “AFSA’s Apprenticeship Competition is not only an amazing competition that involves both physical and mental abilities, but it also gives apprentices a chance to travel the country to compete against other top apprentices. Less than 10 percent of apprentices enrolled in the AFSA Apprenticeship training program participate in the National Competition, so these seven truly represent AFSA’s top apprentices.”
Besides an expense-paid trip to Nashville, Tennessee to compete at the AFSA convention, each of the seven national finalists received a commemorative plaque, tools, cash prizes, and a complimentary convention registration for their employer to come cheer them on!
Commonwealth Fire Protection Chief Operating Officer Dan Laird says, “I believe training is essential for the advancement of any organization. Commonwealth Fire Protection has adopted a company-wide policy requiring continuing education for all employees. Our goal is to offer opportunities for advancement from within our current staff – from fitter to designer, from shop helper to purchasing clerk. Without training and encouragement, none of this would be possible.”
About the Competition
Started in 1994 by the late Robert L. (Bob) McCullough, then chairman of the Education & Apprenticeship 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 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 an excellent education and a fulfilling career, it is also the gateway to competing in the AFSA National Apprentice Competition. Entry forms for next year’s competition at AFSA’s 36th Annual Convention & Exhibition at The Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas September 24-27 will be made available spring of 2017. For more information or to view photos of the apprentices in action as well as other convention activities, visit firesprinkler.org/apprentice.