I often get asked 'How did you get into security fogging?' Good question, because back in 1990 nothing could have been further from my mind.
At the time I was working with my long-time friend and colleague Steve Gilmartin on a military style, pyrotechnic smoke generator. We were conducting tests on prototypes at The Old Gun site deep in the Kent countryside. The site, as the name suggests, was a Second World War anti-aircraft battery consisting of a number of solid concrete blast walls and magazines. Wooden, production buildings had been constructed in the gun emplacements and, despite it's rather Heath Robinson appearance, it was actually an excellent facility.
We really were a long way off the beaten track, so, you can imagine our surprise when we spotted an old estate car bumping along the track and heading towards us. We were rather more taken aback when the driver jumped out of his vehicle and, having introduced himself, demanded that we sell him CS Gas canisters.
In case you didn't know CS Gas is prohibited in the UK and even just possessing one can land you in a lot of trouble. So, Steve and I explained this to our visitor and asked him what he wanted them for.
It transpired that the fellow, Robin, was the owner of a string of garden centres in the south of England. On each of the sites was a wooden building that served as a shop. Unfortunately, he was being targeted by aggressive thieves who were smashing their way into the buildings and making off with a variety of power tools and garden machinery.
"I've tried everything," Robin explained. "Alarms are worse than useless, the Police just aren't able to react quick enough. We fitted CCTV but all that did was give us images of people in hoodies and balaclavas. I even tried building metal cages. But the thieves just smashed them open."
Robin was truly at the end of his tether and had mentioned to a friendly Crime Prevention Officer that, as a last resort, he would be sleeping in one of his most targeted shops to defend it with a 12 bore shotgun. The CPO pointed out that if he did so he would render himself liable to prosecution.
Disappointed that he was leaving empty-handed, Robin asked us what we were doing. As we were about to fire off one of the screening smokes, we asked him if he'd like to watch the test.
To say he was impressed would be something of an understatement. "I want to buy some of these, I'm going to install them in the shops. This will definitely stop the thieving b.......s!"
Steve and I looked at each other, brains racing in overdrive and just like that the concept behind Smoke Screen was born.
It's true that the very first Smoke Screen devices were what is now described as Pyrotechnic Obscuring Devices (PODs). With help from a couple of old friends, Rod McGregor, a well respected pyrotechnician and Bob Pickles, an electronics engineer from the Defence sector we set about producing the very first anti-burglary smoke system. And it worked.
The first installations in the garden centres were triggered within days and on each occasion, thieves left empty-handed. Robin was delighted and we were keen to see if the success could be replicated. This led us to a local garage owner, Bob Wilder and then on to our first national customer: Hi-Q Tyres.
The PODs did an excellent job but we quickly identified issues that we believed would prevent the widespread use of pyrotechnics in this sort of application. First off, the smell. Oh it did a great job of forcing intruders to vacate the premises but it also hung around for weeks. OK in a tyre store but not so good in a jeweller's shop. Second, an annoying habit of bursting into flames. The PODs were installed inside protective cages but the possibility of spontaneous ignition was not exactly confidence building for our prospective customers.
Then a chance remark from Rod set us off in another direction. "What about dry ice?" "The stuff they use in discos?" After some intensive investigation we discovered that while dry ice was not really what we were looking for, thermal fogging, also used in the entertainment sector, seemed to fit the bill exactly.
In 1990 the UK was well known for the volume of entertainment foggers being produced. But Steve and I were a little nervous about using a glorified disco machine as an effective way of defeating intrusive thieves and protecting high value property. So the search continued.
Eventually we chanced upon a company based on an airfield near Maidenhead. Concept Engineering Ltd had been set up in the early 1960s by fogging pioneer Mike Hope. Mike had seen the use of 'cheap and cheerful' fogging devices in the entertainment sector and recognised a demand for better quality devices that could be used for training and simulation. Introducing many innovations into the design Concept quickly established itself as a respected supplier of fogging equipment to Fire Brigades, defence forces and specialist training organisations around the globe.
At the end of 1990 Steve and I met with Mike and his protégé Trevor Dunnington and so began a relationship that endures to this day. As a partnership it has a lot going for it. I was a former Police Officer and appreciated the impact burglary can have on businesses and private residences; Concept had thirty years of producing top quality fogging systems to the highest quality assurance standards.
After a relatively short, sharp development process the Smoke Screen 'Turbo' was developed. A compact but robust machine that could be wall mounted or hidden above a ceiling. So now we had the kit - all we needed was a customer. Enter John from Sunningdale. John owned a 'designer label' menswear shop situated on the High Street in Sunningdale and John had a big problem with thieves.
We approached John after yet another break-in had decimated his stock. The poor man was at his wits' end and his insurers were piling on the pressure to increase his physical security.
"I've installed a monitored alarm and CCTV and still I lose stock. Now they want me to turn the place into a virtual prison with bars and steel screens. How's that going to look to my customers?"
We demonstrated the 'Turbo' to John in his shop and he was blown away. He would have bought it on the spot but we persuaded him to have it properly installed and connected to his intruder alarm system. This was no mean feat. Installation was simple enough but his alarm provider took a little persuading to provide us with an output from the alarm panel.
Job done and we waited. We didn't have to wait for long. Early on Monday morning I sat down to clear the telephone messages received over the weekend. One was from John timed at silly o'clock Monday morning. He explained that the store had been ram raided and that the machine needed to be refilled. So Steve and I jumped into a car and headed off to Sunningdale.
Oh boy had he been ram raided. In fact thieves had stolen an AA low loader and reversed it into the front of the shop destroying the window and partially collapsing the wall. I was shocked at the extent of the damage and taken aback by John's cheerful demeanour. He explained that while he had lost his window display his main stock was intact and he expected to be back trading within a couple of days.
A local policeman who attended the initial scene was also keen to chip in. He said that when he arrived at the break-in approx. 15 minutes after the actual ram raid, the area was still shrouded in fog. The shop's interior was completely hidden even though fog had poured out and settled in the street itself.
Each year after that John sent the Company a Christmas card - another very happy customer. And when he went on to open two more shops, Smoke Screen was installed before any stock was introduced.
Over the past thirty years there has been a procession of Johns and Robins. Businesspeople driven to the edge of despair by unfeeling, callous criminals. This is what makes all the hard work worthwhile because, at the end of the day: Can't see it?.......Can't steal it!
In our next edition Carl will be lifting the lid on the work that goes into making and maintaining a European Standard.