Company finds new niche amid these anxious times

March 06, 2003|By Michael Olesker

THE ADVERTISEMENT was nestled on the back page of this newspaper's Maryland section the other day, alongside gift certificates for The Prime Rib Restaurant and openings at elegant Harborview condominiums: a photograph of a gas mask, and the headline "Protect Your Family From Bio-terrorism."

As America seems to edge its way toward war in the Persian Gulf, the positioning seemed a reflection of national ambivalence. We're not certain if our war anxieties should get in the way of a really great meal, followed by a blissful night's rest by the Inner Harbor.

The gas masks - "the 54400 series gas mask and 40NBC canisters, only $160 each while supplies last" - can be purchased at MMI Industrial Sales, on Deereco Road in Timonium. Also available are plastic sheeting, duct tape, protective suits and other material to fit your emotional needs, though hopefully not your physical needs.

The ad was placed "because of all the phone calls we were getting from private people," says Mary Lou Todd, vice president of the company.

MMI makes most of its money selling environmental products to building contractors who remove asbestos, mold and lead. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, MMI helped supply contractors who cleaned up the Pentagon.

"We sell respiratory protection for these contractors," Mary Prahme, MMI's sales manager, explained yesterday. "So we decided to run the newspaper ad since we were getting more phone calls from homeowners."

"After Sept. 11," said Todd, "we got a lot of calls for gas masks. Maybe four or five calls a day from contractors and homeowners. That lasted through November of 2001. But we didn't have gas masks then. We were busy working to supply contractors at the Pentagon. They needed half-face respirators, filters, protective clothing, duct tape.

"Then, a few weeks ago, I was in the Wal-Mart at Hunt Valley - Hunt Valley, where no one goes! - and I was absolutely shocked. The shelves were empty where they carry the duct tape and plastic sheeting. If they're sold out there, they must be sold out everywhere. And then we started getting phone calls, two or three a day for about a week, for gas masks. That's when we decided to run the newspaper ad."

They've sold "15 or 20 gas masks" since the ads ran last Wednesday and Friday. That's about half their original stock. Most people inquire about gas masks for their children. One contractor, who said he had three children, asked for a "family kit."

"People call first, and then they come in," says Prahme. "They want to know if the masks will fit them. They want to look them over. I give them a spec sheet, showing what it does and everything."

"There are instructions," Todd adds. "Plus the canister. There's a shelf life of eight years. The canisters are dated 2010."

The two women speak in calm, pleasant voices that sound slightly detached from the message behind the ads, and the stark headline language: "Protect your family from bio-terrorism." There's a reason for their tone. They're trying to offer a service they don't particularly believe in.

"I haven't gotten gas masks for me or my husband," says Prahme. "I think we're going to be OK. And I think people's response kind of reinforces that. Fifteen or 20 sales, that's not very much. It indicates people aren't really scared. And I think it's a good thing they're not scared. What will be will be."

"I haven't gotten any, either," says Todd. "I don't think ordinary people are in any panic, although we did have one woman who wanted a gas mask for her dog" - which raises the bleak doomsday question: If a neighbor comes pounding on the door, begging to use the extra gas mask, how do you reply, "Sorry, Fido's using it"?

But Todd and Prahme don't think it will get that far.

"What's set off a lot of the calls," says Todd, "is that constant TV news coverage, and the [America Online] coverage, saying everybody's stocking up on duct tape. TV is panicking people. Then you go on AOL, where it's light and airy, and suddenly everybody's buying duct tape and sheeting."

MMI, she said, has "a warehouse full of duct tape and plastic sheeting, probably 25 rolls, 6 millimeters thick, 20 feet wide by 100 feet long." But it's stock that's generally sold to contractors.

When Todd thinks about the current situation, she sounds like people in the early 1960s who thought fallout shelters were a no-win situation.

"I don't think we're in danger," she said. "But, even if we were, I think so few Americans have gas masks that I wouldn't want a few hours more than other people, just so I could watch them die."

The newspaper ad was pulled after two days.

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