Boy focused on getting camera for firefighters to see in smoke Makers of devices give fund-raisers advice, marketing aid

September 17, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Zachary Lyon is a 10-year-old honor student from Columbia who decided that his local firefighters needed the latest in high-tech gear: a thermal imaging camera that helps rescuers see through smoke and costs thousands of dollars.

So he spent a year writing letters and knocking on doors, and put donation canisters in shops and restaurants. He produced two television commercials, held a charity miniature golf tournament at his elementary school and collected almost $9,000 toward the purchase of a camera.

The Howard County Fire Department is working to pick up the rest of the tab.

Zachary's story is not unique. It is just one of many nationwide that combines fund raising with camera manufacturers' sophisticated marketing techniques. Across the nation, youngsters are knocking on doors, washing cars and getting pledges -- aided by companies eager to make a sale.

The cameras, which can cost up to $25,000, are too expensive for most fire departments and have a limited use. So fire officials in Baltimore and other localities have spent their money on hoses, pumps and other standard equipment.

But community groups and youngsters like Zachary are providing a potent camera sales force -- one whose earnest public appeal is aided by manufacturers' videos, sample news releases and advice. One company, Cairns and Brother Inc. of Clifton, N.J., has sold 750 helmet-mounted cameras since early 1996 and estimates that 60 percent were purchased after charity drives.

Says Bill Tombs, who led a Michigan campaign that included appeals to local leaders: "There were very few meetings that we walked out of without a commitment. They'd look kind of rotten if they had kids dumping piggy bank money into a pancake breakfast and then wouldn't kick in some money themselves."

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a Bethesda-based charity watchdog group, said, "My hat's off to [these companies] from a business point of view, but from a charitable giving standpoint it's a little disturbing.

"In a perfect world everyone would want to help their own fire department and just let them spend the money on whatever they want. We certainly don't want manufacturers who are driven by profits to decide what's best for a fire house or a charity."

Well-accepted procedure

But Richard Durand, chairman of the marketing department at University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said, "I don't view this as being any different than a PTA having kids sell candy It's a mechanism that has been well accepted in our society."

Across America, the stories are similar:

Jenny Greenert, a 16-year-old student in Madeira, Ohio, made $4,000 working the concession booths at the Taste of Blue Ash festival. Professional wrestlers held a charity bout in Hazel Park, Mich. The Tri-County Bodyworkers Association of Rock Hill, S.C., donated the proceeds from massages.

All had the same motivation: "I knew it would save people's lives," Zachary said of his efforts. "I wanted to help them get it."

But typically the campaigns get some corporate help.

At least three manufacturers have created "fund-raising kits," with promotional videos, sample news releases and suggestions. Companies also distribute posters and ads and conduct mock rescues at community fairs to tout the products' life-saving potential -- many times where local governments have refused to finance the purchase.

Camera distributor

"John Q. Public has really jumped on this thing," said Bill Vanarsdale, a former fire chief in Harford County who now works for a distributor of the ISI Vision camera, manufactured in Lawrenceville, Ga. "The fire departments might need other things more desperately, but the public is saying, 'Hey, fire house -- or mayor or county commissioner -- why don't we have this, and what can we do to get it?' "

Not all fund-raising campaigns receive help from the manufacturers, and some campaigns don't buy a camera from the company that provided assistance. And Zachary received posters, literature and fund-raising advice from a manufacturer, but he and his parents planned most of his events.

Still, some manufacturers have full-time employees to oversee local fund-raising drives.

"We lend them as much support as we can," said Cathy Chakmakian, spokeswoman for Cairns-IRIS, the camera manufactured by Cairns. "But they've mostly contacted us. When people see what it can do, it hits home."

Greg Hall, product line manager for the MSA Argus, camera made by Mine Safety Appliances Co. in Pittsburgh, attributes the fund-raising phenomenon to "a Star Wars effect" -- the thirst for ground-breaking technology.

'Help the process'

"In 13 years in this business I've never seen anything hit the public like this," said Hall, whose company produced a fund-raising kit when it realized nearly all of its sales were being driven by public enthusiasm. "We're not really engaging in the fund-raising activity, but we try to help the process wherever we can."

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