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Bioterrorism threat breeds ideas (5/03)

It is hard to decide whether Louis Brown’s neighbours are either very worried or feel very safe living next to the founder of a company specializing in ways to protect people from bio-terrorism.

It is hard to decide whether Louis Brown’s neighbours are either very worried or feel very safe living next to the founder of a company specializing in ways to protect people from bio-terrorism.

“Up until a few months ago my neighbors didn’t even now what I do,” says Brown, who laughs and shrugs off the question.

As the CAO of Nor Environmental, Brown is one of a growing number of companies in North America creating products to help protect companies, emergency response teams and the military from possible nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) attacks.

The North Bay company has developed a number of products designed to offer protection against contamination, including a tent-like shelter, which can be used as a contamination control centre or a hospital, as well as a mobile decontamination trailer, which can be used to wash down and decontaminate objects exposed to dangerous substances. Also developed is a mask communication system to provide protection during an attack while still allowing people to communicate with each other.

A 20-year member of the Canadian Armed Forces who specialized in NBC defense and policy, Brown started the business in 1993 after retiring.

Unable to acquire funding from FedNor and other government agencies, Brown built the company using his own money, investing about half a million dollars into the business.

“We really struggled to stay here in North Bay, because I am gone all the time. The only reason Nor Environmental is here is because we decided to stay 10 years ago,” he adds, explaining his children wanted to remain in school in the city.

“Half the world market, our market, is the United States,” continues Brown, who has briefed a number of international companies and groups on defense issues.

Without government funding to help propel the business, the CAO says he has had to rely on his own cash to develop his ideas. It is only once he has tested the product for performance that he sends the prototypes to engineers in order to create the specifications for the designs.

“When I was $30,000 in the hole I was an entrepreneur,” Brown says. “When I was $300,000 in the whole I was just desperate.”

“We were caught in a catch-22. FedNor would not give us money because it is a defense product.”

He says the second reason funding was not available was because he was not an engineer, and could not afford to hire one without money.

Brown says he and a number of other individuals became involved in the industry while working for the Armed Forces, foreseeing the need for the development of a non-military NBC defense market 20 years ago.

He says they believed the threat to security would move beyond the military of some countries and into the hands of terrorist groups and other organizations.

“It is important to realize that in the last 10 or 15 years there have been many changes in the world,” he explains. “This has come with the introduction of more effective, cheaper and deadlier weapons systems for terrorists and other military groups.”

But this viewpoint was not taken seriously by most people at the time, he says.

That was until 1995, says Brown, when commuters riding the forever-crowded Tokyo subway became victims of a random mass chemical attack. On that busy Monday rush hour, the Aum Shinri Kyo sect released sarin nerve gas into the subway, killing 12 people and injuring thousands.

This, along with a number of other events like the splintering of the Soviet Union, made the thought of biological, chemical and nuclear attacks more of a reality.

“Europe has been prepared for a while,” says Brown. “They were aware of a threat because of their closeness to the USSR and Eastern Europe, and being on the front line during the Cold War.”

Events like the Chernobyl incident, that resulted in radiation being spread across Northern Europe into Scandinavia, resulted in many countries becoming more advanced in their view of the possibility of biological and nuclear fallout and their willingness to embrace technology became more apparent, he adds.

Brown says this need to feel secure was heightened in North America following the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, and fear over chemical attacks, like those involving Anthrax in the postal system.

“Numerous companies started up after the terror attacks,” says Brown. “We were around beforehand, and because of this we had more credence.”

While some companies preyed on the fear of the public, selling 30-year-old gas masks and expensive, but ineffective promises of safety that offered little or no real protection, being involved in the industry prior to these events meant the contacts and customer base was already in place.

Brown says he ensures his products are well designed and tested before being placed on the market and sold.

He says the latest fear about SARS, sudden acute respiratory syndrome, is a case in point.

“I had a feeling our filtration system could work, but we waited for the information on the virus to be released before making any claims,” and rushing to market the system as a solution, says Brown.

A smaller version of his protective shelter, which comes with an air filtration system, could be set up in a hospital or airport as a fast response method to deal with possible cases in order to limit exposure to the public, explains Brown.

He says this belief in not scaring or thriving off the fear of the public is found in the Nor Environmental logo, which states “knowledge dispels fear.”