A Shelter from Violence (Hamilton County Herald editorial)

Hamilton County Herald Front Page - Friday, March 5, 2021

Bulletproof tables offered as shield against school shooters
By David Laprad (originally posted HERE)

A table its maker says can save lives during an active shooting will be manufactured in Chattanooga.

Claiming a piece of furniture could prevent casualties during an attack when places like schools, stores and churches still feel soft might seem bold, but St. Louis-based First Line Furniture is certain it has a product the country needs.

At first glance, a prototype of what the company has dubbed the First Responder looks like any other flat surface at which a student, for example, might sit. At 30 inches deep and 60 inches wide, its most prominent feature is its stark white top, which seems ready-made for books, crafts and sack lunches.

In most classrooms, that’s all the table will ever hold. But a closer look reveals a detail that suggests the table has an additional function.

The back edge of the table is orange, rather than white, as is the top of the modesty panel. The casters are orange, as well.

John Jerman, president of Office Furniture Warehouse in Chattanooga and founder of Aegis, the local company he started to manufacture the First Responder, says these features are visual clues that indicate which tables in the room are bulletproof.

“If you’re on the ground looking for one, then those will stand out,” he says, looking down at the casters on the prototype.

Ideally, someone would have already converted the table from its everyday form into a shield Jerman says is capable of stopping rounds from high-power, semi-automatic rifles such as AR-15s and AK-47s.

If not, then doing so involves nothing more than lifting the orange handle located under the table. A light tug is all that’s needed, as the pneumatics take over from there.

It’s so easy, Jerman says, a child could do it.

As proof, he plays a video made at an elementary school in Birmingham where the students were receiving active shooter training.

In the video, four students are seated at two wood laminate tables; behind them, four more students are sitting at a pair of First Responder tables.

When the school bell rings, the students in the back appear to effortlessly lift the tables into position as the students in front join them behind the barrier.

“I won,” declares a young voice from behind one of the First Responders as the video ends.

Although the student might have thought of the exercise as a game, the creators of the First Responder say they’re serious about saving lives.

“From the beginning, our goal was to protect people,” says Chris Tyron, vice president of First Line. “Each of the persons involved has family that are in classrooms every week. We were concerned about the increase in school violence and wanted to do something to make schools and our kids safer.”

Tyron has just mentioned the elephant that’s in every room in which the First Responder is discussed – the deadly school shootings that have ended or changed hundreds of lives in the U.S. since the Columbine gunmen did what was then unthinkable April 20, 1999.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that focuses on gun violence prevention, reports there have been at least 622 incidents of gunfire on school grounds since 2013 alone, resulting in 220 deaths and 438 injuries.

First Line founders Rich Trubacek and AJ Unger were talking with each other on the Saturday following the Marjory Stoneman shooting Feb. 14, 2018, (during which a gunman killed 17 people and injured 17 others) when they landed on the notion of designing and building a table that would function like any other piece of furniture until the people in the room needed it to provide refuge from gunfire.

“You can usually conceal yourself from a gunman but not find protection,” Jerman says. “You could duck behind a desk in a classroom and be hidden from view, but if the gunman shoots the desk, the bullets will penetrate it.”

As Trubacek and Unger designed the First Responder, they considered the different ways in which the table could be used to protect people.

In addition to the bulletproof top, they included locks for the casters to allow someone to push a First Responder against a door to keep a shooter out of the room.

“Rich and AJ’s idea was to have three First Responders in the back of the classroom and the teacher using a fourth one at the front of the classroom,” Jerman adds. “In the event of a shooting, the teacher could barricade the door with [his or] her table while the students arranged the other tables in a triangle in a back corner.”

Following research and development, Trubacek and Unger did exhaustive lab and field testing.

Perhaps the most punishing tests were performed at a U.S. military facility in South Carolina. Jerman says military personnel fired 12 rounds from a .308 sniper rifle into a First Responder prototype and then detonated 4 ounces of C-4 encased in a metal container 21 inches from the table.

Although the government shot the rounds closer together than First Line had anticipated they would – which can weaken a material – the table absorbed them all.

“When a round hits the First Responder, the table absorbs it and dissipates the concussion, so there’s swelling in the front,” Jerman explains as he surveys the actual table, which is located in a conference room at Office Furniture Warehouse on Stuart Street. “There’s a little swelling in the back, but the rounds didn’t penetrate the table.”

The First Responder also survived the simulated grenade blast intact, Jerman says. Tested in the shield position with the casters locked, the table remained upright and stable and lost no parts. In addition, the back was pristine.

“The government said a lot of penetrations start with someone kicking open a door and tossing in a grenade. They wanted to know what would happen to the table and the people behind it if that occurred,” Jerman says.

“Will you still get a concussion from the sound? Probably, but you won’t be mortally wounded and you’ll still be able to defend yourself. You might make it home that day.”

The only evidence of the blast is a large patch of dark gray on the modesty panel. To ensure it stays there, Jerman taped a “Do not clean” sign to the top of the table.

“I don’t want our office lady to see the smudge and grab a bottle of Windex,” Jerman jokes.

Jerman connected with First Line through Brian Havey, a colleague who was representing furniture companies out of Atlanta. After learning about the First Responder, Havey mentioned the table to Jerman and showed him a video of First Line testing it at a gun range.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea,” Jerman says.

First Line later hired Havey as its president, after which Havey approached Jerman about Office Furniture Warehouse selling the First Responder. During their conversations, Jerman learned the table would be manufactured in California.

Jerman, who was looking for an opportunity to expand his business, suggested First Line build the First Responder in Chattanooga instead.

“I said they should make the First Responder in a city that was easier on taxes, more affordable and closer to St. Louis,” Jerman remembers. “They were open to the idea.”

When it was time to build the prototype to test at the military facility, Jerman sat down with a pencil and a pad of paper and calculated the cost of making the table and the selling price. In December, First Line gave him the nod to serve as the sole manufacturer of the First Responder.

“We’ve known JJ for a long time and have the highest respect for how he runs his company,” Tyron says.

Although First Line granted Jerman the opportunity to build the First Responder, Jerman was a furniture retailer, not a furniture maker. For help becoming a manufacturer, Jerman turned to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Center for Industrial Services, an extension agency of UT that helps small- and medium-sized manufacturing companies create and sustain jobs in Tennessee.

Jerman initially contacted George Aslinger, the CIS liaison in Chattanooga. Aslinger says the First Responder impressed him, and he immediately felt the agency should help Jerman bring it to fruition.

“There was a lot of discussion after Marjory Stoneman and Sandy Hook about making schools safer,” Aslinger says via Zoom. “Although schools have done things to make it harder for an uninvited person to get inside, a gunman will find a way, so how do you harden a school against an attack?

“I think these tables, while not perfect, would be a phenomenal step in that direction.”

Using CARES money the university had obtained to cover the cost of the work, CIS took on the project and tapped advanced manufacturing consultant Danny Norman of Knoxville to flowchart the process.

Building on a bird’s eye view that identified the various stations Aegis will need in place to assemble the table, Norman dove deeper and constructed a detailed description of how the table will be made.

He also created a spreadsheet that will allow Aegis to enter variables related to equipment and labor costs, as well as increases in production, and quickly calculate the return on investment.

“Ramping up production is going to be their biggest challenge,” Aslinger says. “They’re going to receive large orders, and they won’t want to look back in five years and say, ‘We should have bought that $2 million machine because we would have saved $5 million in production costs.’ The financial analysis tool we provided will help them grow responsibly.”

To further help Aegis to improve its manufacturing process moving forward, Norman also developed a tool on Google Drive that collects data on several aspects of the manufacturing process, such as how long it’s taking the company to build the table.

Aegis can then use this data to iron out kinks, Norman says, also on Zoom.

“If it should take two hours to assemble one of the tables, but it’s taking four, this tool will help them devise a way to speed that up.”

Norman adds that he and the rest of the team at CIS were excited to contribute to a project they say offers tremendous benefits.

“We love being a part of something innovative that can save lives. Also, it involves a small business that’s trying to increase its capacity and transform itself into a manufacturing corporation. We enjoy being a part of these kinds of initiatives.”

Although Jerman says the First Responder is bulletproof, he does not say it’s impenetrable. He admits a gunman could approach the table and fire over it, although he adds he believes an attacker would most likely discharge his weapon from across the room without realizing he wasn’t hitting the people crouched out of sight.

“Plus, you could use the table as a battering ram and charge the shooter,” Jerman adds.

Additionally, Jerman says he does not believe the presence of First Responder in a classroom would have a negative impact on young students. Most days, the table would be covered with school supplies, so children wouldn’t feel anxious about being shot, he asserts.

“Then if something bad does happen, they can push off the books, pop it up, roll it to the corner and get behind it,” Jerman says.

Although the idea for First Responder rose out of Trubacek and Unger’s discussion about the Marjory Stoneman shooting, tight budgets and closures at schools have prompted First Line to move its plans to place the table in every classroom in the U.S. to the back burner and move other potential markets to the front.

These markets include law enforcement, which Jerman says could use the table as a mobile shield.

“One officer could push the table down a corridor while another officer walks behind it in a defensive position,” Jerman postulates. “Then, if a shooter enters the hallway and fires at them, they can return fire from behind protection.”

Jerman says the U.S. military is another potential customer. Impressed with how well the prototype held up during testing, the Department of Defense is currently reviewing the First Responder, he reports, and Aegis is expecting sales to the government in the near future.

Jerman cannot disclose price or unit numbers, though, since those things are being negotiated.

Tyron also declines to quote numbers but says First Line and Aegis are expecting production to ramp up quickly in 2021.

Jerman says he believes orders will grow exponentially as more organizations adopt the table, and that sales will be strong enough within three to five years for Aegis to employ 25 to 50 people.

He’s not losing sleep over a larger or established manufacturer stealing their thunder with a knockoff, either, as First Line has secured both a basic patent and an improvement patent on the First Responder.

Jerman plans to set up operations in a 3,000 square foot dedicated space at Office Furniture Warehouse. Currently, it’s filled with office chairs, but he can mentally replace those with the machines and the people who will be making a table he says can save lives.

“I hate that we need this table, but I’m glad we have it."

Tags Emergency Manufacturing Safety Small Business