Viking Was First Defense In Terror Attacks

April 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Tom Groos says it’s not news when a building sprinkler puts out a fire in a wastebasket.

But when a survivor of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon said on “Sixty Minutes” that a sprinkler inside a closet saved his life, it was a big story, indeed.

The sprinkler in question happened to be a new Viking product recently installed as an upgrade of the section of the Pentagon that the airliner struck.

Gross is chairman of Viking, a manufacturing operation in Hastings owned by Tyden Corp., headquartered in the Waters Building. Groos is Tyden’s CEO.

“The sprinkler is a great product when you think about what other things you might be making,” Gross said. “I always like to tell our people that the product they make protects lives and saves lives and property every single day.

“Every single day our sprinklers are activating and putting out fires, and they never get in the news.” But Sept. 11 featured both the infernos and the life-saving stories.

Another such story was a Washington Post hospital room interview with an Army lieutenant colonel. The soldier literally was afire when he collapsed. The sprinkler above him activated, extinguished his skin and clothing and saving his life.

Gross said that Viking, which does business internationally, is one of the two largest manufacturers in the industry. The firm’s gross sales last year, he said, exceeded $200 million. He said the Viking group employs about 750 people.

Viking sprinklers, pressured by huge basement pumps, also played an unknown role in the World Trade Center conflagrations.

“Nobody knows exactly what happened in the Trade Center buildings,” Gross said, “because the last thing the people there were thinking about was sprinklers.

“We do know that many of the people who escaped were soaking wet,” he said.  “And we would like to think that the sprinklers were able to cool the steel for a while and maybe helped keep the buildings up for 45 minutes.

Groos explained that until about 20 years ago, the sprinkler wasn’t regarded as a life-saving device. “It was just primarily seen as a way to protect property.”

But he explained that in 1981 the insurance industry began demanding sprinklers in public buildings. That requirement came in the wake of the disastrous MGM Grand Hotel fire. Eighty-four people died in that literal towering inferno and nearly 700 were injured. Less than a month later, 26 people died in a Stouffer Hotel fire in New York, and then seven more were killed in yet another Las Vegas hotel fire the next year.

In 1990 Congress passed a hotel fire safety act mandating sprinklers in such structures, but that law was just punctuation to insurance and building code mandates that went into effect starting in the early ’80s. “By then,” Groos said, “everybody was thinking of sprinklers as life-savers in hotels, schools, office buildings, Home Depots, you name it.”

Groos told the Business Journal that Viking supplies a range of 4,000 sprinklers, each designed to serve a different function. “They’re very highly engineered and very involved,” he explained. “They have different orifice sizes, depending upon whether they’re in hotels or warehouses or in a gasoline storage facility.

“The key is the hydraulics. They’ve got to have a certain minimum water pressure, and the right deflector, so that they have the right-size pattern so that each overlaps the others slightly.” He said spray patterns range from 100 to 400 square feet, the average probably being about 120 square feet.

He said it’s a common misconception — one which sitcoms tend to perpetuate — that when one sprinkler activates, the entire system starts gushing.

“That’s not true,” he said, explaining that the devices are engineered with a fusible element — solder, or a glass bulb containing an expanding liquid — to activate one at a time.  “Ninty-five percent of all fires are extinguished by two or less sprinklers,” he said.

So how do you tell whether you have Viking sprinklers in your building instead of a competitor’s?  “Considering that we’re in the Midwest, you’ve probably got Vikings,” he said. “If they’re ugly, they’re not ours,” he added, chuckling.

Most Viking sprinklers, he added, are silvery and hang downward. But in hotels and office buildings, the devices are recessed and one sees only a simple white disc on the ceiling, the bottom of the spray deflector.

While Viking manufactures 4,000 disparate sprinkler models, Groos said the devices’ cast bodies come in six styles. The firm imports the cast parts from foundries in Indiana, Toronto and the United Kingdom.

“We do machining, cut the orifices and threads and stamp out the deflector, and assemble it all. And we do the testing for UL and Factor Mutual and others.” He said Viking also makes the valves for the 11/2 to 8-inch iron valves for the sprinkler systems.

Groos’s great-grandfather, Emil Tyden, took the firm into the sprinkler field when his manufacturing plant in Hastings burned down. “He was an immigrant from Sweden who came up with an idea for boxcar cargo security seals. We still make a form of that product today.”

After the blaze, Tyden was angry at the amount of money it would cost to provide a sprinkler system for the new plant. 

“So with no more market research than that, he decided this was something he wanted to get into,” Groos said. “He developed a few products and went out and found a few contractors, and here we are.”

Viking sells sprinkler systems through 20 sites in North America, six in Europe and four in Asia.

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