Frontline Heroes: Fire safety you didn’t know existed

How Michigan company is keeping fire safety in place during coronavirus pandemic

WIXOM, Mich. – This is a story about water pumps and valves and control panels and stuff like that.

If you’re like me, your eyes glazed over reading that, but really, this story is about so much more. It’s about what those things do to ensure safety for everyone, including medical health professionals.

Underwood Fire sign in Wixom, Mich. (WDIV)

Priming the pump

Underwood Fire is an unassuming business inside a sprawling Wixom industrial park. The office is situated just inside the front doors and as you approach those, you can hear music blaring from the large garage door at the other end of the building. That noise is coming from the warehouse, where workers are fitting, cutting and fabricating.

In a large office at the far end of a long hallway sits Underwood Fire’s president, Damon Pietraz. He’s typing away at his computer, in his company T-shirt and N-95 mask. He explains that he started at Underwood right out of high school. He said he answered an ad in the paper about a job.

“I got a call, I didn’t know what I was going for, but it was a recruiting office,” he said. “I tested with them all day on the computer and that, you know, ‘How fast you can type?‘ And I didn’t even have my suit off by the time I got home, I got a call from this gentleman that owned Underwood Fire at the time and he said, ‘Can you be in here in an hour? I have a job starting tomorrow and I need help.’”

That was the beginning of his adult life, because Pietraz would thrive in his first grownup job.

Underwood president Damon Pietraz walks the floor of his warehouse in Wixom, Michigan, Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (WDIV)

Pietraz worked hard and showed his intelligence early on and his boss took notice, so much so that he would pay Pietraz’s way through the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business. As he talks about the beginning of his career he remembers not knowing the business, at all.

“When I was interviewing with the gentleman, he says, ‘We work on fire pumps,’ I said, ‘That’s sweet! You know, I’m going to get right into that, but you’ve got to explain to me, what part of the extinguisher is that?’ I had no idea,” said Pietraz.

After 12 years in the business and a LOT learned, Pietraz end up buying the company from his former boss and began to grow it exponentially.

Take care of your moms

In the warehouse machines grind, push, pull and spark. It’s loud, but it’s the perfect setting to talk with Pietraz. This is where the plans become tangible and projects are completed. Just outside the garage door, sun beaming down, he walks toward a white trailer-looking structure and opens a door.

“In the end, it all goes out the door something like this,” he shows us.

Inside the door is massive machinery, which he explains:

“This is all for crucial infrastructure for the United States. This is for a fiber-optic company. There’s pumps that pump water from Lake Michigan. There are three big pumps in here, and this unit will pump 4,500 gallons a minute when it’s install complete,” said Pietraz.

Its size is impressive and it looks shiny and new, but that isn’t the point in this line of work. The machines and parts made here aren’t going to be entered into beauty pageants, although some of them could be. These machines are made to save lives.

Underwood Fire employee Zach is the “tone-seNer” in the warehouse. His work begins the daily process for him and his co-workers, Wixom, Michigan, Tuesday, July, 2020. (WDIV)

The crew here at Underwood has had a hand in tons of projects ranging from school sprinkler systems, high-rise systems, hospital pumps and so much more. They actually helped get going the makeshift COVID treatment centers at the TCF Center in Detroit and Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi.

It’s easy to discount the work they do, because you don’t see it. The pumps and parts supplied by Pietraz and his team are meant to be hidden away in storage units, behind brick walls or anywhere that’s out of sight. For that reason, it’s hard for people to understand the value of what is happening here in Wixom.

“In relation to fire safety in a building, a lot of people don’t know that this even exists. The work I do on a daily basis means that if there was a fire in a building, any one of those people inside that building would be able to go home to their family because of the work that we’re all doing here,” Pietraz said.

Walking through the warehouse, it’s hard not to notice how detailed he is. From the way he remembers everything and recalls it so quickly to the meticulous sorting of his equipment and gear, it’s evident everywhere. He takes his job seriously and makes sure he’s on his game at all times.

“It’s not a matter of if it’s going to save someone’s life, it’s a matter of when” said Pietraz.

He’s learned a lot about business along the way. Hell, he’s learned a lot about water pumps, too, but for him, the main objective is easy, to keep everything in front of him.

“I tell the guys when they first get started, ‘You have to treat it like your mom is in the building.‘”

That mentality seems to ring true at Underwood Fire, where everyone has worked through the pandemic. Some employees have been braving trips around the country, and others are showing up to work and putting their health at risk just to make sure moms are safe everywhere.

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