New target: Mine Safety Appliances pursues police helmet market

Patty Tascarella

O'HARA - Mine Safety Appliances has a call out to the police.

The 90-year-old developer of safety products said it is pursuing the police head protection market, with the unveiling of new ballistic helmets at the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention in Los Angeles in 2004.

The helmets are an adaptation of the advanced combat helmets, or ACH, that MSA began rolling out to the military in 2002. Thus far, it has produced more than 200,000 helmets to outfit U.S. troops.

"We decided to go after the police market last November," said Hal Kersteen, MSA government products manager. "The reason is, we had a helmet going to the U.S. Army and U.S. Special Operations that was extremely popular and had a number of saves of lives on the battlefield in Afghanistan and Iraq. We wanted to take the line of product to our homeland security police forces."

MSA already has made inroads into the law enforcement community, with its gas masks and other protective gear in use by police departments and emergency first responders across the country.

MSA wouldn't reveal financial goals for ACH's entry into the police head protection market, but its entry has already created around 100 new jobs this year in the company's Murrysville plant, which began producing the helmets in May. The 300,000-square-foot plant employs 400, and hiring will continue in 2005, albeit at a slower pace.

Mr. Kersteen estimated at least 12 more employees will be added at the 29-year-old site, which also produces self-contained breathing apparatus and industrial hard hats. Branching into the police market, he said, will increase production there about 10 percent. The helmets are also manufactured at MSA's Vermont plant.

MSA reported fiscal 2003 net income of $65.3 million, on sales of $696.5 million. About 15 percent of those sales stemmed from the military. MSA wouldn't provide specific numbers, but said the ballistic helmets were a large part of those sales.

Mr. Kistler said MSA's segue into the police market makes sense.

"It's good thinking," he said. "It always helps to broaden the markets for a particular market they already sell."

MSA is not alone in pursuing the police market. Mr. Kersteen acknowledged its main competitors are both based in Pennsylvania -- Specialty Defense Systems, Dunmore, which started out as a manufacturer of football helmets, and Gentex Corp., Carbondale. But he said MSA has a full line of complementary products, "which is somewhat unique in the marketplace," that could give the Pittsburgh company an edge. For example, MSA's gas masks are an easy fit with the helmets, which are also designed to accommodate an MSA-produced communications system.

The IACP convention was selected for the unveiling because it attracts some 14,000 participants from around the world. MSA said it received a number of orders at the event, but would not disclose numbers. Along with hitting the convention and trade show circuit, MSA also is promoting the helmets via targeted advertisements in specialty publications, including Law Enforcement Magazine and First Responder.

Ernie Batista, MSA's homeland security manager, said the military helped pave the way to the police departments, through word of mouth.

"The word has gotten back to the law enforcement community," Mr. Batista said. "Many police officers are also reservists and have been called up and gone to Afghanistan and Iraq where they've worn the helmet and want it (back in the United States) for themselves and their officers."

"Even prior to launching this helmet, we received many requests for orders from police departments," said MSA spokesman Mark Deasy.

The size of the police market is tough to gauge. MSA figures there are around 1 million police officers in the United States that are possible customers. But ballistic helmets have not traditionally been standard equipment for law enforcement officers. MSA believes this is changing because of the increased possibility of terrorism.

"There are possibilities of bombing and fragmentation," said Mr. Batista, a special agent with the federal government prior to joining MSA in 2002.

"The importance of this helmet is, not only does it offer a high level of ballistic protection, but it's comfortable with its suspension system and pads, as opposed to traditional harness webbing. If a helmet's not comfortable, it stays in the trunk of the vehicle."

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