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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ENTERPRISE : Shaken Into a Safety Mind-Set : Retailers Are Cashing In on Disaster Preparedness


Safety stores are bursting forth around Southern California like post-earthquake fissures in unreinforced masonry.

These are save-yourself-from-disaster retailers selling a best-defense-is-a-good-offense strategy.

Stumble into the three Be Ready Disaster Preparedness stores and stumble out with water-purification tablets, pepper spray or freeze-dried M.R.E., meals just like those enjoyed by U.S. military personnel. Lurch into the Q-Safety store in Pasadena to find ways of earthquake-proofing nearly everything except the water in your aquarium. Wander into Family First in West Los Angeles and learn about every hazard known to baby while signing up for CPR classes.

This is truly a Southern California phenomenon, catering to--depending how you look at it--either the region's well-reasoned need to be prepared for the worst or its deep-rooted paranoia.

"It's a little niche market that became very viable after the (Northridge) earthquake," said John Golisch, a Southland-based partner specializing in retailing for the Arthur Andersen & Co. accounting firm. "I suspect they're probably doing a pretty good business."

Thousands of consultants specialize in the business of disaster recovery and preparedness, said Mike Beckerle, editor of a St. Louis-based quarterly called Disaster Recovery Journal. But, Beckerle noted, "we haven't heard of too many actual retail stores."

But such stores appear to be proliferating in these parts.

"Disasters have been very good to us," allows Adolf Singh, who began selling safety merchandise three years ago out of a mall cart with his partner and brother-in-law Al Cabacungan. Now the pair has full-fledged Be Ready Disaster Preparedness stores in Oceanside, Manhattan Beach and Sherman Oaks--the last two sprouting after the Jan. 17 temblor.

"We got into it when we realized that when you try to get prepared, it is very difficult to get all the supplies in one location," Singh said. "The Northridge earthquake really shook people up, and the interest has continued."

Tom Rundberg became interested in earthquake preparation during the 1987 Whittier Narrows quake as he watched a heavy entertainment center sway, threatening to topple onto the small coffee table that was sheltering his young daughter. The entertainment center remained upright, but that moment of fear pushed Rundberg, then a manufacturer of computer furniture, into a frustrating search for devices to secure his home furnishings in place.

Rundberg eventually invented his own products--most of which involve combinations of plastic fasteners, Velcro, woven fabric straps, and metal nuts and bolts--and formed a company called Q-Safety, which manufactures the devices, distributes them to retailers and sells them out of a tiny factory store in Pasadena. Q-Safety sells kits to secure televisions, computer equipment, refrigerators, filing cabinets and all sorts of furniture.

And the store, which is constantly busy, frequently turns into an impromptu therapy session for the quake-scarred.

"The stories that we've heard are amazing," Rundberg said. "People are making friends in the store."

Rundberg said his sales have quadrupled since Jan. 17 and will surpass $1 million this year. And while awareness of earthquake safety has "improved tremendously," that doesn't always translate into action, he said.

"There's a lot of interest," Rundberg said, "but I know a lot of my friends haven't done it."

Rick and Linette Palmer turned their baby-proofing consulting business into the Family First retail store last August, carrying, or representing, a variety of products aimed at preventing a myriad of hazards: toilet lid locks to keep baby out, cabinet latches, earthquake kits, plexiglass for stair-rails and balconies, pool fencing, carbon monoxide monitors, lead testing kits.

"The whole purpose of the store is to give people a large selection to baby-proof and make things safer," he said. "People don't want to go to five or six different places." Palmer demonstrates products for do-it-yourselfers or will do the installation on a contract basis. The store also features a small classroom for CPR or cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first aid and other lessons.

"I really want to provide a service," Palmer said. "We don't try to scare people. The bottom line is you can't protect your children from everything. We try to make it a little bit safer."

Plastic surgeon Christine Petti said that hiring Palmer to baby-proof her home and earthquake-proof her office and operating room gave her peace of mind.

"I was totally panicked with my first child, plus you go through the guilt thing because you aren't there all the time to protect them," said Petti, who recently gave birth to a second child. "It took a tremendous pressure off me and my husband," a cardiovascular surgeon.

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