By Richard Bermack, Contributing Writer and Photographer
The magnitude of this job site is pretty amazing: four city blocks. And then to see all the different crafts and bring everything together, and everyone has a different function. It’s amazing,” commented Mark Washington, a sprinkler fitter from Texas. His feelings were echoed by his fellow workers at the Transbay Center.
When we visited, the sprinkler fitters, members of Local 483, were installing fire protection systems on the two sub-floors (the train platform and the mechanical floor) and the first floor above ground. To help find the points to hang their pipes in this massive 4-block long, winding concrete structure, the workers are using a trimble gps system. They enter coordinates, and the hand-held trimble finds the points. The operator then shoots a laser beam 15 to 20 feet up to the ceiling, where a sprinkler fitter on a lift holds up a cross-haired laser target and marks the spot where another worker will drill holes and anchor the hangers for the sprinkler pipe. Some of the pipes are as much as 8 inches in diameter and run from one building to another. The pipes running between buildings are joined with expansion fittings made of a braided material, which allows the pipe to move with the building during an earthquake.
Sprinkler Fitters Local 483 members at the site are employed by Transbay Fire Protection, Inc. (The company is not connected with the Transbay Center.)
–Voices From the Union–
I’m on the executive board, an inside guard at the meetings. The inside guard stands at the door of union meetings and makes sure there’s no chaos. Sometimes during contract negotiations meetings can get a little heated, but normally there are no problems.
There is a lot of knowledge in this local and especially in our training program. We have mock-ups of the different sprinkler systems you’ll find in the field on display at the union hall. We have a chamber with an actual sprinkler head, and you can see the spray pattern when it goes off inside the glass. I’ve traveled the country to other union halls, and from what I’ve seen, our training center is pretty much the best.
I like seeing the actual construction site from the beginning of the job until the end and all the stages in between. I’m not an office guy who works for 25 years in the same cubicle every day. Everything changes around here, and every job is different.
For example, on this job we’re using a new trimble system. Before, when you set your pipe you took measurements off a column. Say it’s 5 feet off the column, you measure 5 feet over and make a mark. With the trimble, instead of doing all that measuring, it shoots a laser to show you where the actual point is. It’s faster and we make fewer mistakes.
The sprinkler heads haven’t changed much, but the installation has. Now we use coiled up braided hoses called whips to connect the sprinkler fittings to the pipe. You don’t have to be as precise in your measurements as with hard pipe. It saves time.
Journeyman, a traveler from Texas
I’ve put 31 years in the trade and put three kids through college. It’s been great.
I love everything about the trade. I like new construction. It’s fast-paced and you get to be part of an important historical event like this. It’s something to talk about. The building will be utilized for years to come, and considering all the people who will use the trains, you feel like you really helped achieve something.
I love local 483. I’m blown away by the classes and all the training apprentices receive. I’ve worked in a lot of different states and I’ve seen a lot of different locals. The Local 483 training facility is one of the best by far. I got extra training when I came out here, and they provide continued training every year so that people can keep up. On construction jobs, things are constantly changing. No two buildings are alike, and there is always something different.
In Texas we don’t have to deal with the earthquake bracing, which is a large percentage of the job out here. Also, the inspections are more strenuous out here, and there are more safety codes and requirements to follow. Everyone is more safety conscious. It takes more time, but I appreciate it.
I started when I was 18. I got involved in the union, went to all the meetings, and worked my way up through the ranks. Now I’m recording secretary.
We have a good group of people. If we have any problems, the business agents help us out. We get good wages and keep up the quality of our trade.
We have a great apprenticeship training program at the union hall. Excellent teachers and staff. Everything we learn in school we apply in the field, and we’re top-notch. We make sure everything is by the book, according to the prints and beyond. We make sure that we meet or exceed requirements.
You gotta know your rules, know the code book. You don’t have to memorize everything. You just have to know how to find the information and make sure you double check your installation.
When you hear stories in the news about fires and how sprinkler systems saved peoples’ lives, it makes you feel good about our job. Our sprinkler heads are always there, silently waiting for the worst. They never sleep.
I used to be a bank teller, and this is nothing like that. It can be challenging at times, but I love the camaraderie. You rely on the other guys to have your back. For example, you’re moving an 8-inch pipe and loading it on a scissors lift to take it up to the ceiling. That takes communication. You can imagine if something goes wrong.
There are different ways of lifting the pipe and putting it on the lift. There are certain things that big guys take for granted and rely on their strength. I’m a little guy, but I went to the school for little guys like Jackie Chan. There are techniques that don’t rely just on strength but use balance and angles.
This job gives me a sense of purpose. It’s partly the money to support my family, but it’s also about doing the best I can do and saving lives and property. Also I enjoy working with all these guys. It doesn’t matter how much money you make. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, it doesn’t mean anything.
I’m a third-generation sprinkler fitter. When my dad retired, he worked for me on his last day of work. I was a foreman on that job.
On this job I’m helping Kevin, the foreman. It’s like being second in command. I’m in charge of one of the floors. You check the material and see what’s missing and line things up for the guys. Sometimes it can be a challenge working with the other trades, especially on this job, where space is at a premium.
In the building, we’re not the first ones in, but we’re the first ones installing, because our pipes are supposed to be above everything else in case something goes wrong. And here in the city, we’re also installing temporary protection during construction, because of some of the fires they’ve had at building sites.
I run the trimble machine. It’s something different, out of the ordinary, that you don’t necessarily experience every day.
My father and grandfather and great-grandfather were in the trade. I’m fourth-generation. Originally my goal was medicine. But as I went through school, it became clear that I was more suited for this. I couldn’t sit still and wanted to get my hands dirty.
This trade has met my expectations and exceeded them as well. I can see a lot of career possibilities beyond becoming a journeyman or a foreman. Eventually I want to become a business agent. I like helping other people.
My dad’s union, and I grew up union. The union is like a family, and we’re a very family-oriented family. This company makes you feel welcome. You know you have a place to turn to.
We’ve been trying to keep up with the work flow, but we could use more manpower. The other trades have been helping us move things around. It’s crowded here. You have to talk to a lot of guys and say, “I’m going to need to get in here in a couple hours, and then it’s going to take me a couple hours.” It takes a lot of cooperation. You have to know how to talk to people and negotiate.
It’s great looking at the work after you’ve installed it and then seeing the fire department test it out and knowing that it can save lives.
I did a job in Hayward, and the building next to it caught fire. It spread to our building, but the sprinklers went off in both buildings and all the people got out in time. It was right next to City Hall in Hayward.
Every job is different, different atmosphere, different people, and a different building. It’s exciting, and the physical work keeps me in shape. I like new construction during the summer and tenant improvements during the winter when it’s cold.
My most memorable job is the Winchester House in San Jose. When you’re retrofitting a historical building, you have to be real careful about everything. You have to be careful where you drill, and they want to keep all the stuff you take out.
We lift a lot of heavy pipes and wrench them in place. You stay in good shape doing this job. The trick to doing our job is lots of experience. We’re always learning, and the sprinkler heads we put in save lives.