by: Emily Krone – Daily Herald Business Writer:
When the smoke from a headline-making fire clears and public outcry for investigation, litigation and legislation wanes, Thomas Hartel’s job begins.
Hartel, president of Batavia-based Valley Fire Protection Systems, is developing his company’s brand by educating the public on fire sprinkler installation.
In the wake of last October’s fatal fire at the non-sprinklered Cook County Administration Building, Hartel delivered a series of articles, editorials and speeches about the potential cost- and life-saving benefits of fire sprinkler systems.
He criticized the city for not requiring owners to retrofit older buildings with sprinklers and informed building owners of proposed sprinkler-related legislation and tax incentives.
“We fully intend to be the best fire protection contractor in the Midwest,” Hartel said. “The articles and other informative pieces are intended to differentiate Valley as a leader in our markets.”
Valley, founded in 1970, has grown steadily over the past 10 years, according to Hartel. In 1995 the company had eight employees. Today it employs more than 80.
To accommodate the growth, Valley relocated from Elgin to a new, larger building in Batavia. In Batavia they were one of myriad businesses that benefited from the tremendous building boom west of Chicago.
The Hartel family has worked in the fire prevention business for more than 100 years, but it’s what’s new – new urban growth, new legislation, new technology – that’s driving the company now.
The National Fire Sprinkler Association projects the industry in 2005 will set sales records, fueled by new legislation and rising insurance costs.
A growing number of Chicago suburbs, including Wheeling, Hoffman Estates and West Dundee, are requiring residential fire sprinkler systems be installed in all newly constructed homes.
In August, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation requiring the installation of fire sprinkler systems in all private and public college and university dormitories by 2013.
And in September, Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced a bill that would significantly improve the tax incentives for installing fire sprinkler systems. A similar bill was introduced in the House in 2003.
Hartel said the introduction of the bills “could be the largest single event to happen in the fire prevention and sprinkler industry.”
The cost of a sprinkler system varies, from $2 to $4 per square foot to retrofit a residential building to $6 to $14 per square foot to retrofit a Chicago high rise. A sprinkler system in a new, large suburban home would cost about $8,500, Hartel said.
Hartel emphasizes that sprinkler installation can significantly reduce insurance costs. According to the House sprinkler bill, fire caused $8.9 billion in property damage in 2001, and sprinklers can reduce property damage by 40 to 70 percent.
The thrust, however, of Hartel’s public education campaign is the potential savings in human lives.
“It’s truly a life or death situation,” he said.