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Entrepreneur growing fire safety firm in Katrina’s aftermath

Brookhaven — George L. Faust, owner of Professional Fire and Safety, started his business in 1995 with an idea to sell smoke alarms and fire extinguishers to home owners. But the business has grown in ways not expected, especially after receiving major contracts for Katrina recovery.

Like many businesses, Professional Fire and Safety started out by recognizing a need. Faust, while a firefighter for the City of Brookhaven, noticed there were fewer fires in affluent areas of town.

“I wondered why,” Faust said. “Upon personal examination, I realized that some areas of town had fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, and others didn’t. So, as a firefighter with a degree in business management, I decided to pursue that as a business. There were a disproportionate number of fires in the poorer part of town. Upon narrowing the causes down to smoke detectors, fire extinguishes and education, I started a business to deliver those products and information to underserved areas.”

The company made it a practice to provide a lot of free education to schools, churches and the fire departments. While he picked up a large number of residential customers, Faust soon learned that businesses were keener on fire safety than most home owners.

“The folks most interested were business owners,” Faust said. “That wasn’t what I expected. I think homeowners are not really setting the right priorities, and that highlighted that the home market would be hard to penetrate as a business.”

Faust found there was a lot of interest in automatic fire suppression systems in stove hoods for restaurants. After finding that existing stove hoods were often not adequate to support fire suppression systems, in 1998 they started selling commercial stove hoods compatible with fire suppression systems.

“That opened the door for a few commercial kitchen appliances, as well,” Faust said.

Now the company offers portable and wheeled fire extinguishers as well as wet chemical and dry chemical fire suppression systems. Many other fire safety related products such as fire extinguisher cabinets, signs, fire hose and valves are also available.

Professional Fire and Safety is certified to deliver corporate/industrial training on the proper use of portable fire extinguishers as well as fire hose training and testing. Those have proven popular especially with hospitals and logging companies. Loggers quite often have fires on their equipment. Professional Fire and Safety has a product called Cold Fire that is mixed with water to put out difficult fires quickly.

“Cold Fire is now one of our bread-and-butter offerings,” Faust said. “For example, a tire burning at over 1,500 degrees sprayed with the Cold Fire additive can bring those temperatures to under 100 degrees in a matter of a minute or so. We have successfully marketed this product at logging association meetings. These are one of few items proven to extinguish fires on skidders and tree cutters. The fires get so hot that it is very difficult to extinguish them.”

After learning about the product, getting trained on how to use and sell it, and obtaining rights to sell it, Faust demonstrated the product at the Mississippi State Fire Academy and a similar fire academy in Shreveport, La.

“The fire academy arranged a pit fire for us to extinguish in a simulated airplane crash with several thousand gallons of fuel burning,” Faust said. “We extinguished this fire within four minutes, which is about one-fifth the time it generally takes the fire academy to extinguish the fire using their traditional methods.”

After Hurricane Katrina, the company was called to help extinguish a hurricane debris fire in Petal that had been burning for weeks. A large area of the Pine Belt area was blanketed by smoke from the fire.

“The Army Corps of Engineers contacted us, as did the company in charge of that debris field, through our Web site,” Faust said. “At the time we were working on the Coast with Bechtel on a winterization contract for FEMA trailers, so we couldn’t get there for two days. Once we got there, we used 30 gallons of Cold Fire, and extinguished the fire in 45 minutes.”

Cold Fire’s manufacturer Firefreeze Worldwide Inc. has even supplied Cold Fire to soldiers deploying for Iraq for their personal use extinguishing fires there.

Faust said the U.S. Forest Service recently gave Cold Fire a Qualified Product Listing after testing showed that it does not have a negative impact on the environment including local waters and wildlife.

“This is the only product of this type approved to be used around streams and lakes because it is environmentally friendly,” Faust said. “It doesn’t kill fish and insects. It is a water enhancer, meaning it takes water and makes it more effective in fighting fires. That is our next target market, the U.S. Forest Service. We are pursuing an exclusive licensing agreement with the manufacturers to market Cold Fire through the South and the Southwest.”

Three years ago Faust attended a Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference in Nashville, Tenn. Previously they were unaware of the benefits of being certified in the SBA programs.

“While attending that conference I learned information about the 8(a), Small Disadvantaged Business and Hub Zone certification from a young lady who had done very well in business,” Faust said. “We applied for those programs, and were certified for the 8(a) program as a small disadvantaged business, and also certified for the SBA Hub Zone program which targets businesses working in economically underutilized areas.”

After Katrina, the company first received a materials supply contract from FEMA providing fire extinguishers, axes, Coleman grills and lanterns to agencies on the Coast setting up tent cities. Then the company received a second Katrina contract from Bechtel Corp. for a project to winterize water supply lines for FEMA trailers on the Coast.

“The FEMA trailers were hooked up in a rapid fashion with water lines dangling on top of the ground that were going to freeze when we got a frost,” Faust said. “Our contract required us to hire 30 people starting Christmas Eve. We put half that staff in place by December 26 by tapping workers who were already pulling trailers at night and using these workers during the day on a second shift. We brought down manufacturer representatives and trained these folks the day after Christmas. Their job was to install heat trace cables that automatically keep water from freezing. The cables are then enclosed in foam insulation. This was a big contract for us worth three times the amount of sales we normally do in a year. And the job had to be complete in six weeks.”

Bidding on the open market, the company also won a third contract building 25 guard shacks for FEMA. Faust found out about the contract on the Internet, and completed the project in May.

Now the winterization and guard shack contracts have led the company towards disaster mitigation offering solutions to ongoing problems.

“Our latest pursuit is venturing into construction management on contract where we put our teams of skilled people in place for disaster management contracts,” Faust said. “We are in the process of acquiring contractor licenses in all the different areas of disaster management while continuing to maintain our 1,000 or so fire extinguisher customers in the Brookhaven area.”

The firm has now grown from two to four full-time staffers. And its success has been noticed. Professional Fire and Safety was chosen as Small Business of Month by the Brookhaven-Lincoln Chamber of Commerce in February.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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