Joining the arsenal against attack: body alarms that shriek

March 15, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Don't mess with Sherry Matteson: She's wired.

Wherever Ms. Matteson goes, her "personal attack alarm," (PAAL, for short), goes too.

Her PAAL is a beeper-sized safety alarm. Pull the pin, and an alarm emits an ear splitting shriek that may frighten an attacker or attract assistance.

For Ms. Matteson, a 32-year-old comptroller for Quality Rent-A-Car, the $29 battery-operated body alarm is "at least a step toward deterrence" of an attack or mugging.

"The way it's set up, [the alarm is attached to] a clip with a string. When I have my purse, I can have my hand on that string, along with the strap from my purse," Ms. Matteson explains. "If the purse is grabbed, the string is going to be pulled. The alarm would stay in the purse and would make quite a noise. . . . It's incredibly loud, definitely a rude bugger."

PAALs, Red Alerts, Mugger Stoppers: These and other body alarms are the latest gadgets in the expanding personal security market. They cost anywhere from $10 to more than $50. There are water resistant "sports models," and hybrids that come with flashlights, or built-in containers of ultraviolet dye and incapacitating sprays.

Sold in retail outlets, or through distributors a la Amway or Avon, personal alarms are being presented to police departments, students, nurses, senior citizen organizations and correctional institutions as a safe way of preventing crime. Unlike chemical spray or pepper spray, a body alarm cannot be used against you, adherents say.

"There's a large market for them," says Dominic Sorrentino, owner of Alarm-It Distributors, a security equipment firm in Parkville. Body alarms, with decibel levels above 100, "usually will scare any assailant away," he says.

"We've gone through 10,000 [personal safety devices] in the last month," says Shane Murton, a salesman for Safety Technology International in Michigan. "We currently distribute four different versions of it. With each new version, they seem to get more popular as they get better and louder," he says.

After a crime prevention presentation by distributors of alarms made by Quorum International, Towson State University police chief Stephen K. Murphy endorsed their use. And TSU crime-prevention specialist Corp. David Stallard has been pushing the personal protection device as an alternative to chemical or pepper spray. "There's never a guarantee against crime, but they are just another method to reduce the potential of becoming a victim," he says.

A Quorum seminar also sold the Baltimore City Police Department's crime resistance unit on body alarms and they are now touted in public safety presentations. "We do think it's something worth having. Just like a whistle, which we have also recommended in crime prevention meetings," says Officer Michael Byrd.

"Personal safety devices quite often are a personal choice," says Veto Mentzell, Goucher College director of safety and security. "A lot of times it could be psychological. If it makes you feel more comfortable, then it's giving you that added air of confidence."

Larry Messmer, regional director of the national organization Citizens Against Crime, has a different view about body alarms. "From the standpoint of Citizens Against Crime and my background in law enforcement and security, if you carry [body alarms] and think you're safe, you're under a false sense of security," he says.

At crime prevention seminars, Mr. Messmer advises participants to buy tear gas, "Call police" signs for car rear windows and a book called "Don't be the Next Victim" -- but not body alarms.

Sherry Matteson, however, says her PAAL gives her "a certain peace of mind." The Glen Burnie resident once carried Mace, but no longer does. "I'm afraid of weapons, really," she says. "I just know someone would get it away from me."

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