The Potomac gas mask is lightweight, and less cumbersome than full-fledged masks.
By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com

Fred Samama claims there was a line down the block, and a 45-minute wait to cram into his store in the weeks before the Iraq war began. Location might have something to do with it. His “Safer America” shop, which sells personal security items, is only a few blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. Still, the war and all the talk of biological and chemical terrorism isn’t giving the personal security business the wartime bump you might expect, aside from an increase in duct tape sales.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Internet has become the world’s largest survivalist shopping mall.

Search the Web for information on terrorism, safety, or security, and you will be directed towards sites with names like Stayin-Alive.com (NOT a Bee Gees revival), HomelandSecurityMasks.com, SaferAmerica.com, and SurviveAmerica.com. They may not be getting rich, but they sure are multiplying like rabbits.

And there is no end to the number of devices that are being peddled to those who believe they can plan for any disaster the future may bring.

Opinions vary on how useful the myriad of gadgets for sale might be — iodine tablets sure would have helped Chernobyl residents, the sites like to point out. But the tablets won’t help you survive an actual nuclear blast.

Samara says customers who come into his real-world store are often looking for advice as much as anything else.

“They ask, ‘What should I take,’ for this and that, as if we were doctors,” he said.

Thanks in large part to the constant appearance of gas masks coming on and off the faces of embedded network correspondents, the protective breathing devices are still the most popular item in survival stores, says Samama. Simple models, like the Potomac pictured at the top of this story, offer the peace of mind that you can escape all kinds of horrible things, at least for a while. The Potomac was designed after the 1995 chemical terror attacks in Tokyo. For a little more than $100, it’s a lightweight solution, weighing in at less than half a pound.

The baby tent

Breathing apparatus for the baby -- an oxygen tent.
Of course, such gas masks are of no use to babies and children. Pulling air through the powerful filters requires a lot of sucking power, too much for the kids. So they need special hardware, like the baby tent, which sells for $300 at HomelandSecurityMasks.com. Battery powered, the tent pushes clean air into the baby’s environment.

Pet protection

The pet tent
And for Fido, there’s the pet tent, which is also sold by HomelandSecurityMasks. It retails for $229. Because Fido’s muzzle can’t easily be fitted for a gas mask, he goes into a tent. Consider it the ultimate in crate training. Again, battery power pumps fresh, clean air into the pet’s breathing space. Perhaps fiddling with Fido’s tent will give you the practice you need to properly install the baby into one of these.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner

A year's supply of food

Of course, what’s the point of surviving if you can’t eat. A cornucopia of Web sites are offering packages full of enough vittles for a year. Many are now taking advantage of healthy MRE (meal, ready to eat) marketing, courtesy of all the “soldier’s life” stories being told right now. But there’s plenty of powdered milk for sale, too. The woman above has enough food for a year, it’s claimed, and she sure seems a lot more relaxed because of it. The package comes with 30 cans of freeze-dried food, along with plenty of helpings of dehydrated rice, vegetable soup, cereal, and fruit. All for just $2,000.

A phone that packs a punch

A stun gun disguised as a cell phone
If the cell-phone is the ultimate personal gadget right now, a stun-gun disguised as a cell phone is probably the ultimate personal security gadget. John Merit, who sells them for about $100 at CriminalStoppers.com, makes clear that the device will not do a bit of good against terrorists. It is strictly to ward off criminals invading your personal space. And it better be your personal space — the phone-gun won’t work unless it’s actually touching the targeted person. But the 180,000 volts it generates will have the assailant gyrating spasmodically on the ground in no time, as it disables his or her nervous system.

The key to the tool’s effectiveness is that it’s small and easy to carry around.

“If you don’t have it handy, you might as well not have it,” Merit said.

Persoanl parachute
The Executivechute got a lot of buzz in the weeks following Sept. 11, but as the ultimate emergency gadget, it deserves fresh mention. It is what it sounds like: if you find yourself stuck in a high-rise building, with no way out, you can try jumping. Just throw the tiny parachute on your back, make the leap of faith, pull the string, and hope for the best. Hope, for example, that you manage to jump far enough away from the building that the chute actually works. Hope the wind doesn’t slam you into a building facade. You get the idea.

The high-rise escape parachute.
Even Samama, who sells it for $845, wasn’t ready to leap to the product’s defense. “It is a last resort solution,” he said. “It’s very hard even for professionals to use. There is a great chance you will break your legs or something like that. Still, it is better than jumping without anything.”

Of course, the product was designed in response to the dozens of victims who faced the horrific choice of jumping out of the World Trade Center to their death or being burned alive.

And therein lies the rub for most of the these security gadgets. Like many security tactics, they are often a lamenting “if only” commentary, designed to help people who have already perished in some terrible way. If only Chernobyl victims had iodine tablets, if only Tokyo victims had small gas masks, if only World Trade Center victims had parachutes.

We use these terrible regrets as a marketing tool, suggesting somehow that tomorrow’s tragedy will be a carbon copy of yesterday’s. One shoe bomber puts plastic explosives in his sneaker, the entire world takes its shoes off before getting on a plane now — as if the next terrorist will try that trick again.

Preparing for the past this way may be a fool’s game, but it serves a function.

“We have a mission to provide products that will ease people’s minds,” Samama said. He hopes to expand retail locations to other major U.S. cities later this year.

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