Clean Fire Protection Becomes Rule

November 3, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Darrell Thomas, president and owner of Vanguard Fire & Security Inc., has seen “mammoth” changes in fire detection equipment and fire suppression during his 33 years with Vanguard.

Whether it’s an office building, a factory, a hospital or a retail store, clean agent fire suppression systems are a high priority today because everything is electronic, computerized and running through switches, said Thomas.

He said his company probably gets more calls for clean agent systems than anything else.

Vanguard designs, installs and maintains fire suppression systems and fire extinguishing equipment, as well as electronic security and detection systems. That includes closed circuit TV, door access control, special hazard fire protection, and wet and chemical sprinkler systems for commercial and industrial clients.

As Thomas explained, a wet sprinkler system is primarily for building protection, whereas special hazard systems are specially designed fire systems for operations. Special hazard systems could include agents such as carbon dioxide, dry chemical, wet chemical, FM-200 and Ansul Inergen and Sapphire systems.

Clean agents like Inergen, FM-200 and Sapphire, for instance, would be used for computer rooms, telephone switch rooms or other processes where the goal is to put out the fire without harming people and doing “collateral damage” to equipment while leaving a lot of residue.

“If you’re in a computer room and the fire department comes in or a sprinkler head goes off and you dump water on the electronics, that’s the end of it.”

Vanguard designs and installs systems in both new and existing buildings. Thomas estimates the company’s workload is about evenly split between new and remodeled buildings.

Fire suppression and electronic security systems are licensed so that only a licensed contractor can install them.

“If you’re going to get any benefit as far as an insurance credit on your fire alarm system, wet sprinkler system or anything along those lines,” he told the Business Journal, “it has to be installed and maintained by a licensed contractor.

“There are several spots in the state — Traverse City, Kalamazoo and the Detroit area — where wet sprinkler systems are now going to be required in new residential construction.”

About 10 percent of Vanguard’s client base is currently residential.

Vanguard serves the Michigan, Indiana and Ohio markets but actually does business all over the country with clients that have multiple locations.

“We go where they go,” Thomas said. “Typically, that’s a way for them to control the type of equipment they’re purchasing.”

If a company buys an FM-200 system, for example, it has to keep in mind that there are five or six manufacturers of that product line, Thomas noted. The point is to try to keep the same type and same style of equipment at each of the company’s locations so that each system is familiar to the system’s maintenance crew.

Thomas also pointed out that some systems, like the Ansul Inergen system, come with a 10-year guarantee. Whether it discharges accidentally or because of fire, the manufacturer will pay for the refill on that system.

William J. Richter founded Vanguard Fire & Security in 1957, and Thomas purchased it 14 years ago.

“When Bill started the company, most all of the fire protection equipment manufacturers sold the equipment but didn’t have any distribution,” Thomas recalled.

“So 40 some years ago, these guys started up fire protection companies because they had to service what they were selling. Bill was one of the first distributors for Ansul in the United States.

“I came in on the systems side and grew that side of the business. It’s been quite a transition from the time I started to where it is now.”

Today, the company has 58 employees, four locations in Michigan and $6.7 million in annual revenues.

Vanguard has more than 7,000 commercial clients spread across Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. About 3,500 are in West Michigan.

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