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A High Schooler Looks Out for Fire Sprinklers, Even At the Mall

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the odds of dying in a fire and the average property loss per fire are cut by one-half to two-thirds when fire sprinklers are present. With this in mind, the American Fire Sprinkler Association in Dallas sponsors an annual essay contest for high school seniors to learn more about the fire sprinkler industry and earn scholarships for college in the process.

After writing her essay, Karen Henspeter is now aware of fire safety and the benefits of fire sprinklers.

Karen Henspeter, 18, of Copper City, Alaska, is this year's winner. Henspeter's 1,000-word essay was unique from the 3,100 other entries the AFSA received because it told the story of a fire from the perspective of a fire sprinkler.

Her essay began: "I shifted nervously from my vantage point on the ceiling, sensing that something in the air was unsettling. Anticipation tensed every muscle in my small, steely body as I surveyed my surroundings again." Henspeter earned the AFSA's top prize and a $4,000 scholarship for her essay, "An Expert in Success - The Autobiography of a Hero." She says: "I just wanted to try something unusual."

Henspeter found out about the contest through an online college scholarship service and pursued it vigorously. She contacted her state's fire marshal, who sent her information about state laws and the use of sprinklers. In the process of researching, she found out that only two buildings in her community are outfitted with fire sprinklers. The experience, she says, has made her think more about fire safety.

"I am more curious about what buildings have fire sprinklers," she says. "When I'm walking in malls or hotels I look now. In Alaska, we're a little behind. I worked at an elementary school that did not have fire sprinklers, which worried me a bit."

That is exactly the desired effect, says AFSA public relations manager D'Arcy Montalvo, whose organization has sponsored the essay contest for the past 17 years. In all, AFSA gave out $13,000 in scholarships this year to contest winners. Henspeter is attending Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn., this fall. She plans on pursuing a major in elementary education "We do a questionnaire at the end," Montalvo says. "All of them say they never thought about sprinklers before the contest. Now they look up when they're at the mall. We're trying to increase their awareness."

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