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A Sum for All Fears

Forget the Duct Tape, Maryland's Zytech Engineering Wants to Bring Panic Rooms to the Masses

Christopher Myers
Garden Party: Eric Dunn (in tie) talks up Zytech Industries' personal safe rooms at the Washington Home and Garden Show.
Zytech Industries' Jeff Quante samples the merchandise.
A Man's Home is his Impenetrable Fortress: Dunn shows off the "Diplomat" model
The interior of the "Diplomat."
One in the Chamber: Zytech Industries' promotional display

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 3/12/2003

Gray days, curbside heaps of filthy snow, TV weather automatons going on about the latest round of "wintry mix"--it all makes the Washington Convention Center seem like an oasis of hope. A bastion of sunny promise. The Washington Home and Garden Show invaded the rambling facility March 6 to 9--booth after booth of merchants hawking products for blue skies and good times.

Daffodils, hyacinth, and azaleas bloom around the gardening exhibits, perfuming the air with the heady bouquet of spring. Even the mounds of mulch emit a hopeful, fecund aroma. Gas grill peddlers conjure images of backyard barbecues, sizzling steaks, and cold beer. Hot tub dealers fathom up fantasies of warm, splashy nights of exposed skin and jug wine.

And then there is booth No. 2015. Here the imagery is of anthrax exposure and Sarin nerve-gas attacks. Here the future features armed thugs and ax-toting kidnappers. Here the gauzy dream of June-day jollity is shattered by a healthy dose of dread.

Here is Maryland's 8-month-old Zytech Engineering.

Dominating Zytech's booth is a silver-painted steel enclosure--roughly the size of Coke machine--labeled the "Diplomat." Opening its 800-pound door reveals a 34-inch-by-46-inch-by-72-inch space housing a single pull-down seat, a fire extinguisher, and a first-aid kit. A pair of narrow slit windows holding impossibly thick glass pierce the thick steel. The metal rectangle tips the scale at nearly 3,000 pounds. The price for a basic model: $14,900.

It's a safe room, a home-security device designed to provide its owners with a last-ditch safe haven should intruders invade their home. When fully installed, the rooms also include communication equipment allowing occupants to call for help. They can even be outfitted with chemical toilets, air conditioning, and a host of other user-friendly options.

Last year's film Panic Room effectively blew the lid off these little-known security contraptions. The thriller featured Jodie Foster holed up in a deluxe high-tech safe room and playing a bloody game of cat-and-mouse with robbers who crashed her Manhattan brownstone. The residential redoubts have long been a worst-case-scenario tool of the super-rich (and perhaps the super-paranoid) for years, but now Zytech aims to market them to the masses. And thanks to an optional Israeli-made air-filtration unit--capable of screening the room's air of all known nuclear, biological, and chemical contaminants--they take on a second lifesaving function: They do away with duct tape and sheet plastic as ready-to-roll refuges from terrorist attack.

Five hundred years ago there was the castle keep--the final, stony fortress within a castle's crenelated walls. Now we have a ton-and-a-half of steel with a five-figure price tag.

"It's a fear-driven business," says Jeff Quante, Zytech's soft-spoken, 55-year-old chief operating officer. "There's a lot of fear right now surrounding current events, and we want to provide consumers with peace of mind. We provide solutions to set their mind at ease. We think there's a market here."

Terrorism threats aside, most police stats show that violent crime is down nationwide. But Quante feels the papers carry enough high-profile home-intrusion cases to make consumers look his way. In some big cities, he notes, beleaguered police departments no longer routinely respond to home alarms. (And there are also plans to sell the units in more turbulent countries such as Israel, South Africa, and south of the border. "There are six kidnappings a day in Mexico," Quante says.)

Power-suited Eric Dunn, whose steelworks, Dunn Industries, builds the units for Zytech, is also a firm believer in the new company's mission.

"They are totally unique products," he says. "No one else in the world is offering this right now."

Though Dunn goes to great pains to emphasize that, when not in panic mode, the home hideouts can do duty as humble household safes, the fear factor is not far away.

"Personally, I think right now we have the same living conditions and level of paranoia that they have in Israel," he says. "And it's only going to get worse."

And so, does Zytech have its finger on the zeitgeist of our troubled infant century? Is their dose of reality--rude as it is amid a garden show's atmosphere of idle-hour escapism--a needed wake-up call? Or are they simply panic profiteers, hoping to ride a wave of grim newscasts to the bank?

Perhaps all of the above.

Zytech's rooms of doom are born in a nondescript factory building just off Interstate 95 near the Cecil County community of Northeast. No looming Zytech sign announces your arrival. Instead, the signage before the 110,000-square-foot facility reads dunn industries. Dunn manufactures steel storage tanks for petroleum products and chemicals. The company is also the sole-source contractor for Zytech, which is to say it builds the contraptions to Zytech's specifications.

Quante, bespectacled and casually clad in a zip-up sweat jacket, serves as tour guide through the chilly factory. It's a noisy place. Various metal workers hammer away on fuel tanks, and arc welders spark and flash. Adding to the cacophony, somewhere a boom box is playing Foreigner's "Hot Blooded." Dominating the shop floor is a pair of huge 60,000-gallon tanks--each several times larger than a tractor-trailer. Quante says they'll soon be shipped to Kuwait to hold fuel for Humvees in the event of a U.S. strike against Iraq.

Amid this activity sits a trio of inauspicious metal boxes. They look a lot like garbage Dumpsters, but the largest--painted a jaunty cornflower blue--weighs some three tons. They are newly minted safe rooms, part of a single customer's order for a quartet of the facilities (the fourth room is still being assembled).

"This one has an interior door in it," Quante says, stepping gingerly into one of the metallic cubes. "If someone should breech the first door, which is highly unlikely, the customer wanted the ability to fire at whoever was coming in, so we have a gun port in this interior door. He is pretty serious about protecting himself."

This "serious" customer is also outfitting his windowless steel box with a closed-circuit television system, allowing him to monitor what's going on beyond its inch-thick walls. (Much like Jodie Foster did in Panic Room.) The foursome will leave the loading dock in month or so. The price: a cool $250,000.

"These will do virtually everything--stop bullets, stop forced-entry assault, stop chemical and biological terrorism," Quante beams.

Now, if you really wanted to force your way in, Quante says, you could try either C4 plastic explosives or an oxyacetylene torch. But the former is nearly impossible for civilians to acquire, and the latter requires bulky equipment an intruder is not likely to lug around. (And most safe rooms are secretly hidden behind false walls, and so come as a rude surprise for would-be assailants.)

And who is this deep-pocketed--and more than a little paranoid--individual acquiring this quartet of in-home forts? Quante has to dummy up here. "He's not from Maryland, that's all I can say." Nothing is more hush-hush than Zytech's client list. (The firm won't even reveal how many units they've already sold.)

But if Quante can't say who his buyers are, he can say what they are. "We're selling them right now to multimillionaires and billionaires," he says. "Usually the safe room has been used by people in high positions--either power or wealth--that have a fear of kidnapping or bodily injury."

Quante feels, however, that we are approaching the time when safe rooms will be a common feature on million-dollar houses--a three-ton expenditure to go along with the sub-zero freezer, granite countertops, Jacuzzi tub, and other luxury gewgaws. They may even become not-so-secret status symbols--a bit of braggadocio on par with a shiny Benz in the driveway.

"A lot of people might start showing off their safe rooms to their friends," Quante figures. "It might become a case of keeping up with the Joneses--I've got a bigger safe room than you have, or I have more amenities than you have."

But this is only speculation--and perhaps wishful thinking. The business of building bulletproof secret lairs remains a small-scale operation. While an Internet search will turn up scores of firms offering safe rooms, most of these reinforced enclosures are designed to protect occupants from tornadoes and hurricanes--not kidnappers or nerve gas. A few alarm companies and safe manufactures have gotten into the safe-room racket now that Hollywood has popularized the concept, but Quante dismisses most of them. Zytech, he asserts, is the only company in the country solely dedicated to the nonmeteorological safe room business.

Quante is an expert on such matters, but he took a rather circuitous path to the James Bond-esque world of ballistics-proof gadgetry. In the 1960s, he studied English at what was then Towson State Teachers College. ("I wanted to be writer," he says. "I still do.") He even spent some time at the Maryland Institute College of Art, but when it came time to join the work force he became an engineering draftsman. "I soon discovered I had talent for designing things," Quante says. He ended up doing the bulk of his designing and development for companies manufacturing security components for the U.S. government--armored doors, bulletproof glass, and the like.

"I have to watch myself," he says with a faint smile, when the conversation turns to his past. "I've worked with the Secret Service for a number of years and I can't jeopardize national security--I don't like federal prison. But you've seen my work many times, that's all I can say. Whenever you've seen the president on television, you've seen my material."

Quante says safe rooms have been around in high-government levels for at least 20 to 25 years. Since the 1980s, he says, every U.S. embassy has had a protected area where personnel can take shelter behind hardened doors and bullet-resistant glass.

"We're attempting to do something that's never been done before," Quante says of his new venture. "The average American has never had the luxury of being offered this type of protection. Unfortunately, in today's world we think it's going to become a necessary thing. The way the world is evolving, we have already kind of committed ourselves to being the enemy of the radical Islamic world for the rest of our lifetime."

Quante chuckles at the notion that the Department of Homeland Security--with its color-coded terrorism alerts and calls to duct-tape your way to breathable air--is providing free marketing for his firm. "The current fear scenario has just compounded things," he says.

Safe rooms have traditionally been an answer to the question: Where do you go when your burglar alarm goes off? Now that they can be made impervious to harmful airborne agents, they can also tackle the thorny question, "Where do you do go when a chemical or biological attack alert is sounded?" Quante says dubbing his safe rooms "the fallout shelters of the 21st century" is a pretty fair description. "I'd like to sell one safe room for each of the fallout shelters people bought back in 1950s," he adds.

But, are there enough paranoid billionaires to go around? Zytech doesn't think so. Instead, they hope to broaden the customer base. "I want to be able to sell one to my neighbor, and I don't live in a wealthy neighborhood," Quante says. "We're going to keep working on them to get the price down so people can really afford them." (Heck, his wife wants one for their Westminster home.)

Currently, Zytech is only selling the Diplomat series, a top-of-line model offering maximum protection. In the coming months, they plan to add several lines of simpler safe rooms offering lessening degrees of protection. The goal is to get the price down below 10 grand. The rooms come in all sizes, from claustrophobic phone booths less than a yard square, to sizable enclosures that really are, well, rooms. (Company sales materials list the largest Diplomat models at nearly $70,000.) Quante figures, however, that 90 percent of the safe rooms they'll sell will be custom jobs, built to meet a client's specific space constraints and needs. And they can be shipped in one piece or assembled on-site, though it takes four strong men to do it.

Quante asserts that his reinforced rooms not only look nearly impenetrable but are proven to be so. He is familiar with the testing protocols the State Department requires of its security enclosures and third-party tests his products to meet--or exceed--these government standards.

Up in a second-floor office--whose windows overlook the shop floor--Quante pops in a video showing a collection of beefy men beating on a Zytech room with a sledgehammer. The footage was shot just down the road in the town of Street, home to H.P. White Labs, a 66-year-old facility that tests security apparatuses for both the government and the private sector. Here technicians have subjected Zytech rooms to all manner of ballistic tests--essentially shooting the things with a host of handguns and rifles. (No bullet has gotten through yet, thank you very much.) They also conduct what's called "forced-entry attack testing."

"This test is supposed to simulate an unruly mob in a Third World country attacking an embassy," Quante explains. "In reality, the guys in the lab are a little more sophisticated than a mob. And they have plenty of tools--12-pound sledgehammers, fire axes, wood-splitting wedges, 120-pound battering rams, six-foot pry bars, and every type of chisel you can imagine."

The State Department grades a security apparatus' forced-entry worthiness in terms of how long it can withstand assault: five minutes, 15 minutes, or an hour. The Diplomat line got the highest rating.

"The six-man attack team couldn't even begin to get in to our room in one hour," Quante says, with evident satisfaction. "They could bang on it all day and not get in."

A final test of fortitude will have to wait until summer, when Zytech hauls a safe room out to a New Mexico testing ground to try and blow it up. Plans call for detonating 100 pounds of TNT 100 feet away from a unit--a blast sufficient to "flatten this factory building," Quante says. He's confident, however, that when the smoke clears his steel box will be standing tall--and he'll have another superlative to slap on his sales materials.

"My goal is sell about 300 safe rooms this year, 1,500 the second year, and, by the third year, get it up to 3,000," Quante says. "If we can get to that level, then we want to take the company public--sell it all and walk away." (And maybe, in Quante's case, begin that long-postponed writing career.)

Achieving these brisk sales will require some shrewd marketing. Quante admits that they're still grappling with just how to go about presenting their unique products to consumers. To date, the only advertising efforts have been some 30-second TV spots airing in the Baltimore/Washington market. (The ads feature a gaggle of burly, hammer-clutching "villains" vainly pounding away on a Zytech room; the tag line runs: "Once you're in here, the bad guys stay out there.") While the company's Web site is getting hits, referrals from Quante's security-industry connections have driven sales so far. The Home and Garden show represents the firm's first major public appearance. But though organized outreach efforts have been minimal, media attention hasn't. The Washington Post, local TV stations, and CNBC have all done stories on the fledgling firm.

"It's fun right now," Quante says. "We didn't expect this much publicity."

Zytech is clearly banking on safe rooms emerging from the shadows to become a bona fide security trend. But gauging whether or not the company is on the right track in figuring Mr. and Mrs. Middle America are ready to sacrifice their walk-in closet for a steel bunker remains to be seen.

"I've never encountered [a safe room] yet," says Clifford Rudo, a Baltimore-area real estate agent for Coldwell Banker, which handles some of the area's priciest properties. "I've never been in a house with one, and nobody has ever asked about them. I know a lady building a $2 million house, and she's not putting anything like that in."

His sentiments are echoed by Thomas Biggs, a Rockville-based Long and Foster agent whose territory includes the tony Montgomery County communities of Potomac and Chevy Chase.

"I'm pretty active out there and I've never seen them," he says of safe rooms. "All I've seen is articles saying people are putting them in. I don't really have a clue about them."

Michael Hill, president of Washington-based Emerge Homes, a builder of luxury residences in the District, Maryland, and Virginia, says he is "familiar with safe rooms from building shows" and even knows of Zytech's products. However, he's not motivated to offer them in his million-dollar houses. And none of his moneyed mansion seekers have asked about them, either.

"I would expect we might hear more about them over the coming years, what with the situation in Iraq," he says. "I'm sure they're better than plastic and duct tape. But I don't see them becoming that ubiquitous a luxury amenity. The level of fear is not there. I wouldn't invest in them."

One person who does know all about safe rooms is Robert Oatman, president of the Towson-based security consulting firm R. L. Oatman and Associates. Oatman is a retired chief of detectives for the Baltimore County Police Department, an FBI national academy grad, and author of the book The Art of Executive Protection. Though unfamiliar with Zytech's products, he says safe rooms "have been around forever."

"Before these things became cachet--'sexy', if you will--we were recommending safe rooms, and we continue to do that--but only based on the circumstances," Oatman says. "For people of high worth they can make good sense."

Oatman has provided security consulting--and has sometimes recommended safe rooms--to high-profile clients around the world, from the jet-setting elite to high-powered CEOs. ("I wish I could tell you some of their names," he says. "You'd know them.")

"You don't want to build a room that is so fortified it doesn't make practical sense," he cautions. "I'm not saying I'm opposed to them, but you have to conduct a risk assessment as to whether or not you really need something like that. You have to be practical. All the technology has to be driven by common sense."

Oatman asserts that a do-it-yourselfer could fashion a reasonable safe room at home simply by upgrading an interior room's wooden doorway with a sold metal door hung in a reinforced frame--stuff you could get at the local Home Depot. And though he co-authored the book You're the Target, which examines the terrorist threat from a personal-security angle, he's not buying rolls of tape--or Israeli air purifiers--just yet.

"The odds of a terrorist attack are remote," he says. "I'm more worried about being robbed on the streets of Baltimore. Or carjacked."

But clearly some people are worried about the dangerous, terrorist-haunted times we live in. The shelves of area hardware stores have been denuded of duct tape. Alarm company signs sprout up in more lawns every day. Indeed, some people have a preternatural tendency toward anxiety and panic. Could these folks be safe room customers? Dr. Rudolf Hoehn-Saric, director of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine's Anxiety Disorders Clinic (which treats patients suffering from excessive anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress), doesn't seem to think so.

"I've never come across anybody who has invested money in these sort of things," he says. "I think people would have to be very anxious and not too realistic for such a thing. Most of my anxious people are a bit more . . . normal."

Some 67,000 people ended up trooping through the Washington Home and Garden show. By the fourth and final day, the mulch piles are a little disheveled, the tulips a tad tired-looking from their indoor diet of artificial light. Many of the merchants will simply be moving on--packing up their products to decamp at another town's sunny-day dog and pony show. Zytech Engineering forklifts its 3,000-pound Diplomat back to Northeast, pleased with its public debut.

"It went well," Quante says. "There was a lot of mixed reaction from the people passing by our display--we got a lot of giggles and a lot of shocked looks. One person said they'd rather die first if they had to go into one of those things. But we also got a lot of very serious people that wanted to know some details about the product. And two sales resulted from the show."

Business seems to be good in the bad-times business.

"We've got 40,000 hits on our Web site over the last couple of weeks," Quante says. "I think people know we are here."

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