Post-9/11 invention allows escape from tall building fires

Story as originally posted at The Detroit News –

Rochester Hills firm releases portable harness, rope device

ROCHESTER HILLS — As Pat O’Kane dug out bodies of firefighters from the rubble following the World Trade Center attacks, he thought there must be a way to help people escape from burning buildings.

He called his friend, Randy Goodman, in Lake Orion, with whom he had done some entrepreneurial work in the past. O’Kane, who also makes a living painting New York’s bridges, was familiar with rope and harness systems for dangling high in the air and thought maybe some of that equipment could be modified to create an escape product.

Within two weeks, he and Goodman were working on a prototype. Within two years, their product went through several designs and $1.5 million in research and development cash. After seeking the advice and approval of fire departments around the country, their company, American Escape Systems Inc. in Rochester Hills, is ready to launch LifeCender.

The portable escape harness helps people escape from fires in multistoried buildings. It comes in a briefcase-type box that can be carried, left at home or work. Different anchor systems attach a rope in the event of a fires, with the other end attached to a vest that the person puts on, then escapes through a window. An apparatus on the vest slowly lowers the escapee, making it a hands-free descent. A control can adjust the speed.

LifeCender goes on sale for the first time July 1, beginning first with their Web site, AES sought the technical approval of fire departments before planning the product launch, Goodman said.

“If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for the public,” Goodman said.

AES is giving LifeCenders to the New York Fire Department, which plans to test LifeCender in July, said Jim Long, press secretary for the department.

“We’re looking into it. It may be a helpful device to civilians and possibly helpful to us,” Long said.

Paul Hashagen, a retired New York firefighter, saw the LifeCender while working at a department training prior to retirement. He was impressed with the design and now plans to sell LifeCender through a training company he has formed. In 28 years of firefighting, he lost friends and believes LifeCender could have helped in some situations.

“I think it will revolutionize firefighting,” Hashagen said.

LifeCender covers escapes from two-story through seven-story buildings. AES is working on making LifeCenders for buildings up to 25 stories and possibly skyscrapers. The cost ranges between $149 and $259. Henson said he expects to sell 50,000 to 60,000 units in the first six months and up to one million next year.

LifeCender isn’t the only escape product out there.

“There were a lot of new escape products after 9-11,” said Margie Coloian, public affairs manager for the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass.

One such product is a parachute made by Home Defense Products in Washington D.C., but the price tag is a hefty $1,899.99.

Fire facts:

* In 2001, there were 383,500 home fires in the United States, resulting in 3,110 deaths and 15,200 injuries.

* Sixty percent of Americans have an escape plan and of those, 42 percent have practiced it.

* A total of 439 firefighters were fatally injured while on duty in 2001.

* 340 firefighters died in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

* In 2001, 82,250 firefighters were injured in the line of duty.

* There were 1,078,300 firefighters in the United States in 2001.

Source: National Fire Protection Association