— The Christmas morning fire that killed three children and their grandparents in a waterfront Victorian home in Stamford inspired four children in Bethel to think hard.
The result: The four, ages 7 to 11, hatched a home-safety business plan designed to save lives.
Their idea was so good, it bested business plans from thousands of other children to become one of few nationwide that will be judged in person by billionaire investor and business tycoon Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, Neb.
Siblings Michael and Diana Wipf, 11 and 8, and sisters Amanda and Lilly Carter, 11 and 7, worked together on the idea for a private home-inspection service that would also serve as a sort of social-networking site online — so people could see if their friends and family have had their home inspected for safety measures.
The membership-based service, called Safety Guard'in, would include home inspections, online games about home safety, a network of friends and family who are part of the service, and products for sale.
"There was a fire in a town near us, in a mansion, this past Christmas morning," the children wrote in a synopsis of their business plan. "The family was smart and rich and caring, so they had the money and resources for safety, but they made some safety mistakes, and had also planned to install alarms but had not done it yet."
The Bethel team was among about 3,000 children between ages 7 and 16 across the U.S. who entered their entrepreneurial ideas into the "Grow Your Own Business Challenge" hosted by the animated Web series "Secret Millionaires Club" and sponsored by CreditReport.com.
A cartoon likeness of Buffett is a character in the "Secret Millionaire's Club." The contest is to promote entrepreneurial spirit in children just as the show is about developing good financial habits.
"One way or another, you develop financial habits when you're very young, and the habits you develop live with you the rest of your life," Warren Buffet said on CNBC last year in describing the purpose of the cartoon series.
After making it into the semifinals, the Bethel children were required to enter a video explaining the idea.
In late April, they learned they are one of three teams, and, separately, five individuals, who are finalists in the contest. They won an all-expenses-paid trip to defend the entry before Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, on May 21 in Omaha.
The grand-prize team will get $5,000 for each member and the same for the winning individual. Runners-up will receive $500 each. The contest also awards money to the winners' teachers.
The Bethel children said their private home-inspections would be conducted by qualified safety experts, perhaps retired firefighters, for example.
"If you don't pass an inspection, you have two options: an inspector fixes it or you fix it," Amanda Carter said.
Michael Wipf added: "Or you could buy products from Safety Guard'in."
The proprietary line of products wouldn't be limited to garden variety fire extinguishers and carbon-monoxide detectors. The children have ideas for unique devices.
Lilly Carter came up with the idea for a 911 bracelet, to call emergency dispatch instead of having to fumble for a telephone in the middle of the night when a fire breaks out.
"It's a shorter way to call 911," she said.
Similarly, Diana Wipf had an idea for a GPS bracelet to help locate lost children.
They've even thought of potential partnerships, like linking with the property-casualty insurance industry to promote safety.
"Let's say somebody buys a certain kind of insurance," Amanda Carter said. "You could get a discount [when buying Safety Guard'in products]."
That's the type of thinking that could appeal to Buffett, whose company, General Re Corp., has vast insurance holdings — much of it, in fact, in Stamford, where General Re is based.
The Carters and Wipfs were on a ski trip in Vermont when they learned on Dec. 26 of the fatal Stamford fire. The perplexing horror for the children's mothers — Jennifer Leavitt-Wipf and Emily Carter — was how a parent could be sure his or her children were safe during a sleepover at a friend's house.
"When Mom started wondering how this could be prevented from happening again, and how she could know another family's house is safe when we visit, we thought of a safety club for families, where a family would pledge to keep safety devices installed and current, get a certified inspection done, and then be listed as a member with a safe home," the children wrote in their business plan.
Jennifer Leavitt-Wipf works part-time as the business editor at the Scarsdale, N.Y., Inquirer. She learned of the entrepreneurial contest while interviewing someone in January who is affiliated with About Kids For Kids, a youth-innovation organization that has promoted the Buffett contest.
She told her children, and they started their collaboration. It was a lot of work for the children, but the payoff is proving to be worthwhile.
"In the beginning, it was boring," Michael Wipf said. "But then it gets more fun."