Local inventor promoting fire safety with new tool
By Sarah Wolfe
Fri Mar 14, 2008, 01:55 PM EDT
North Andover News
North Andover - WHAT NOW???
It’s a phrase that captures panic. In this case, what someone might say when the fire exit they’ve always used is blocked.
George Peters Jr. hopes his simple invention will eliminate the need to ask that question when it comes to escaping a burning building.
The local inventor’s WHAT NOW??? Evacuation Training Aid was recently awarded a trademark from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Like many inventions, the idea sprang from observation.
Peters, president of his local invention company, Lancer 1, Inc., works as a property manager for the Lawrence Community Action Council. He’s witnessed the twice-a-year fire drills at the council’s daycare.
“I got the idea while watching firemen struggle with having to stand in a doorway during the drill and block people,” Peters said. “During the center’s mandatory monthly drills I would watch the director set up a chair with police tape and people would just walk by it.”
Peters decided a very clear message was needed. With input from fire officials, he designed a large, two-sided standing cardboard cutout of realistic flames. The eye-catching tool, used to block doorways during fire drills, challenges people to find alternative exits.
When the childcare center first began using the tool in its monthly drills, the results were a reality check for staff.
“When they had to go to alternate exits, they found the other exits were blocked,” Peters said. “They’d find doors that were rarely used had been painted shut. Once they couldn’t open a door because a teacher had piled mats against it on the other side.”
“Simple things like that would be chaos in an emergency and people could lose their lives,” added Robyn Lynch, director of the childcare center. “There are 253 children plus staff at the center and George’s tool has helped new staff get to know the building.”
Another incentive to use the tool is insurance premiums.
“When insurance companies see you’re being proactive with safety, there are savings,” Peters said.
WHAT NOW??? was introduced to the North Andover Fire Department through former Fire Chief Bill Dolan, who also helped Peters market his product to other fire departments. Firefighters carry the five-pound tool in a traveling portfolio case to local businesses and schools to hold drills.
Peters believes grade-school students benefit most from the simple yet effective teaching method the WHAT NOW??? provides. He hopes to one day have it in every school in the country. If the success he’s enjoyed already is any indication, he just might do it.
Merrimack College uses WHAT NOW??? for fire training in its dorms. And, the safety tool has been donated to the Stevens Memorial Library for families to sign out and practice with.
“When I speak with students, they say they have a meeting place outside their home, like in front of the mailbox, but no escape route,” Peters said. “No one thinks about it until it’s time.”
On a larger scale, Lancer 1, Inc. has six Top Fortune 500 companies as clients, including Raytheon, General Electric and Fidelity, which has made the tool mandatory in all of its sites in the United States and Canada. Fidelity officials had tried out WHAT NOW??? during a drill and were disturbed to see employees, captured on a security camera, milling around a foyer because they didn’t know another way out. They would’ve died had it been a real fire, Peters said.
The product was also introduced to the N.H. Fire Academy, Seabrook Nuclear Power Station and the U.S. Marine Corps base in Beaufort, S.C., where there’s a childcare center, school and barracks. And it’s now used in hotels across the nation.
“It’s important that hotel staff know where to lead folks since people are constantly coming and going and are unaware of the escape routes, especially if they’re high up on the 10th floor,” Peters said.
Texas fire departments are currently considering the tool for drills in oil refineries, where they are constantly practicing evacuations.
‘Every inventor’s dream’
WHAT NOW??? is Peters’ second invention with Lancer 1. His first was The Mitt, which kicked off his small business in 2002.
“It’s every inventor’s dream to come up with the next big idea,” Peters said. “I go and watch people to see if they’re having difficulty doing something. I think of ways to make things easier for them. I got the idea for the Mosquito Mitt when I saw a little girl having bug repellent applied and she got sprayed in the eye.”
The Mitt, which resembles a large potholder, is used to apply repellent, polish and wax cars, put on sunscreen and shine furniture. It’s also been popular with horse owners.
As for WHAT NOW???, Peters hopes to bring some of the assembly work from Rhode Island to American Training in Lawrence. The center provides work for special needs adults, who could take on an order of 500-1,000.
“I’m trying to keep things local,” he said.
Ultimately, all of the effort Peters is putting towards his latest invention is to ensure it helps keep others safe.
“When you hear about people dying in a fire, the most common explanation is they didn’t know how to get out. One day it could save one person’s life. That will make this worthwhile.”