Northern California company forges path with emerging market

Airco Automation writes own future with success of fire life safety inspections

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – It’s not often that an irritation on a job turns into a new branch of business for a company, but it happened for Airco Automation, Inc. in Sacramento, Calif. While testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB) technicians were on the job, they noticed the smoke and fire dampers in many buildings were faulty, broken or used incorrectly. Seeing a piece of wood holding a damper into place was a common occurrence.

“The process of getting someone outside the company to take care of it was a nuisance,” said Brian Lehmkuhl, Airco Automation’s TAB supervisor. “We got educated, so we would better know what we were dealing with and found there was a lot more to it. Fire life safety is an emerging market, and we saw an opportunity to train more workers and put more people to work.”

Fire life safety is identified as an emerging market by the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI), with training courses conducted by the International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry. The program trains technicians and supervisors to inspect, test and maintain fire and smoke dampers, which limit the travel of smoke and fire throughout a building. The successful operation of these dampers may mean the difference between a minor fire and an uncontrollable catastrophe.

Because smoke and fire dampers are a safety feature, and not used on a daily basis, many building owners don’t recognize their importance until it’s too late. Maintenance and inspection helps safeguard the lives of the building’s occupants and protects investments of owners and tenants in case of fire.

In 2010, Lehmkuhl and colleague Michael Weaver earned their ICB/TABB HVAC Fire Life Safety Level I and Level II Technician certifications as well as their Level I supervisor certifications. Lehmkuhl will take the Fire Life Safety Level II Supervisor certification exam later this month.

Airco Automation had a service to offer clients they couldn’t have provided in the 36 previous years. In a short time, the company has made a name for itself in HVAC fire life safety. Today, the company has sent 16 employees to earn their Fire Life Safety Level I Technician certification and six for their Level II Technician and Level I Supervisor certifications.

“If we had half our crew certified, I think that would be a success,” Lehmkuhl said. “It’s one more tool in that tool box.”

Airco Automation supports employees and encourages them to earn their certifications. It only helps the company to fill an in-demand niche in the community.

“There was a need, and there weren’t enough trained technicians to take care of it. Many didn’t understand and recognize the importance of fire life safety,” Lehmkuhl said. “Our training has led to more work. We’ve been able to say, ‘not only can we provide the materials for the repair, we have the certified technicians to fix it.’ It’s giving workers a different skill set. It’s become a deciding factor on who gets the call.”

In 15 months’ time, Airco Automation has installed dampers in a dozen projects – anywhere between 20 and 90 per project, depending on the size. A few laid off sheet metal workers have even been put back to work due to their certifications.

“It’s diversification,” Lehmkuhl said. “If you can help a handful of guys, that’s something.”

Airco Automation isn’t hogging all the work for itself. In fact, the company’s goal is to have fire life safety expand within the local union, on both the employee and employer sides, putting even more people back to work. The company has aligned with the Northern California Fire Prevention Officers Association and has provided seminars on fire life safety at meetings with fire chiefs and other fire prevention officers.

“There is work out there for all of us,” Lehmkuhl said. “The goal is to enforce it and have so much work out there we can’t take it all.”

The National Energy Management Institute (NEMI) works hand in hand with the International Training Institute (ITI), a joint educational initiative of the Sheet Metal Worker’s International Association (SMWIA) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). Through materials and programs, ITI supports apprenticeship and advanced career training for union workers in the sheet metal industry throughout theUnited StatesandCanada. Located inAlexandria,Va., ITI produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a wide variety of training materials free of charge to unionized sheet metal apprentices and journeymen.

For additional information on courses offered by ITI in fire life safety, visit or call 703-739-7200.

For more information on emerging market opportunities in the sheet metal and air conditioning industry, contact the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI) at or call 703-739-7100.