Los Angeles Daily News


By Brent Hopkins
Los Angeles Daily News

Friday, March 21, 2003

While soldiers abroad grab for rifles and gas masks, security companies across the San Fernando Valley are reaching for their circuit boards and welding torches to keep the home front safe.

As the war and continued tension over terrorism mount, homeland-security firms of all sorts have seen heightened customer interest. Some companies adapted their normal lines to accommodate new tasks, while others merely saw a rush in orders for their product line. Whether answering a patriotic call to duty or just filling a gap in the market, industries of all sorts have seen business spike in recent months.

“It feels very good to be able to do something for our country and the safety of people,” said George Lintz, chief operating officer and founder of Quintessence Photonics Corp. in Sylmar. “We started out as a company that was dedicated to helping people communicate with each other; now we’re on the other end of the spectrum, helping put together weapons. There’s been a great change in the business, but it feels good to help.”

His firm makes diode lasers, high-powered, bright-beamed instruments used in radar and infrared countermeasures. Interest from the Department of Defense peaked following Sept. 11, 2001, and now Quintessence’s engineers are at work developing the lasers for radioactive and biohazard detection purposes and secure communications. They began the year with a staff of seven, but recent interest has put Quintessence on a hiring binge that will nearly triple its employee base by year’s end.

Jittery building managers have kept Dave Dickinson’s phones ringing at Delta Scientific Corp. The Valencia-based barrier maker has doubled its business in the past year and a half, enough to necessitate building a 125,000-square-foot facility in Palmdale to keep up with orders and to require hiring nearly 80 more employees. Dickinson, the firm’s senior vice president, declines to list his civilian clients but says he’s stayed busy trying to soothe their fears with his 5-ton gates.

“In most cases, they’re aware of a general threat or a specific threat,” he said. “They look at their facility and say someone could drive into my parking structure with a bomb and the whole building would go down. You can have a guard in a guard booth who can shout and yell if they want to, but the barrier gives them authority and control (over) who comes in and out.”

Other office-dwellers have sought peace of mind from decidedly more exotic providers. Malibu’s Emergency Evacuation Systems sells a parachute designed to aid trapped workers escape buildings by bypassing stairs and elevators. Although the $1,495 Evacuchute, effective above the 15th floor, still sells in modest numbers, orders for the premium product have been up 25 percent as fears of terrorism fester.

“People are frightened of a repeat scenario of what happened with 9-11,” said Jeremy Ireland, the firm’s co-founder and CEO. “That image has been imprinted in people’s minds, so they’re are afraid they’ll be in a vulnerable position again. They’re looking for ways to prepare themselves.”

Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations’ clients want more guards and better access-control plans, said Bob Cohen, the firm’s director of security assessments for California. Where a company once wanted an eight-hour patrol, now it wants crews around the clock.

“Three months ago, people were complacent, but in the last 30 days they’ve gotten more interested,” Cohen said. “I don’t think we’ll become another Israel, but people realize there’s some risk.”

As surplus stores field phone calls from customers searching out gas masks, Chatsworth-based Interscan Corp. prepares the machines to test them. Government agencies such as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health employ the gas-detection experts’ RM analyzers to evaluate the efficacy of mask cartridges, a process that executive vice president Michael Shaw says has sped up considerably.

“Crises bring out the best and worst in people,” Shaw said. “We hope we can meet these challenges and make our stuff work better. I’m sure if there weren’t a war looming over these people, they wouldn’t be as focused, so we have to step up, too.”

Not that that’s good news for all businesses. Billy Carmen, chief executive officer of Van Nuys-based Wizard Industries, takes no joy in his brisk metal detector sales. In a normal month, the firm sells 200 of its Security Wizards to airports, police departments and the military. Last month, he sold 1,500 — sales he’d rather not make.

“It’s disturbing to sell them, because whenever we’re selling well, it means there’s something wrong in the world,” Carmen said. “Especially in the past two months, it’s reminding of us of the Sept. 11 days. Then, we had a massive growth spurt, but it’s not the kind of thing we can go out and celebrate big increases on.”