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Built to Withstand Blasts

Times Staff Writer

In the South El Monte factory of B.I.G. Enterprises Inc., sales Vice President Dave King keeps a photo showing heavy damage to Guam’s international airport by Typhoon Paka. Among the few structures to emerge unscathed from the fierce 1997 storm: three of the company’s concrete-anchored cashier’s booths.

At B.I.G. Enterprises, the mission is to build security booths strong enough to resist nature’s violence as well as man’s.

With model names such as the Fortress and the Convincer, these custom-made structures -- tricked out with glare-proof windows, vault-like doors and machine-gun ports -- will withstand .50-caliber rifle shells and bomb blasts. Few of the booths have been tested as thoroughly as the three in Guam.

“Fortunately, we don’t seem to have a lot of warranty repair work to do on our booths,” quipped King’s father, Preston, the company’s president.

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But since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the company has faced its own, more welcome test. Rampant security concerns have more than doubled sales, which hit $12.5 million in 2005.

“Right now we are absolutely maxed out. We couldn’t do any more work here without expanding beyond this location,” Preston King said about the company, which he bought for $5,000 in 1973 when he was one of three principals at insurance brokerage Wells Management Corp.

It’s been a steep climb for B.I.G., now a family-owned business with 49 employees and an average of nine ongoing job contracts.

B.I.G. was founded in 1963 with a not-so-lucrative emphasis on mobile home and travel trailer repairs. B.I.G. also built simple wooden booths for parking lot attendants at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles and other locations for as little as $900 each. (The company was originally called Biltmore Garages Inc., but the hotel objected and the name was changed.)

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By the late 1990s, the country was coming to grips with two domestic terror incidents -- the bombings of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996. That heralded a push for perimeter defense, security experts said, and booths that could protect the guards on patrol.

Now, B.I.G.'s booths are all galvanized steel. They are designed by in-house engineers and assembled by precision welders. The little buildings cost an average of $25,000 apiece but can run as high as $110,000.

“Everything is custom-made to order,” Dave King said, adding that the U.S. Secret Service once requested a booth with a heavy-duty stainless-steel drawer for holding weapons.

B.I.G. handles about 55 orders a year but gets an average of 175 queries, he said.

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A considerable portion of the work involves routine structures such as bus shelters, amusement-park-ride equipment enclosures, ticket booths and prison-guard enclosures. But since 9/11, B.I.G. has seen its high-security jobs increase to 60% of its business. That work has included guard enclosures for nuclear power plants, water treatment facilities, chemical plants and other high-risk sites such as the New York Stock Exchange.

“That’s the market we go after now,” said Preston King as he and his son sat in the company’s sales pitch room. Nearly every inch of wall space is covered with photos of the hundreds of booths designed by B.I.G.

More than two-thirds of the company’s business is for customers outside California, Dave King said.

B.I.G. is headquartered in an industrial section of South El Monte, with little to distinguish its facade from the rows of auto and glass repair businesses and paint shops that line the thoroughfare.

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Inside, it’s a different story, with several booths in various stages of welding and construction. Lying flat along one wall are thick sheets of U.S. military-grade armor plate, which must be heated to high temperatures before anything can be welded to its surface.

On another wall hangs a Underwriters Laboratories Inc. threat-level chart showing impact velocities and the number of shell hits that a booth must be able to take from various types of ammunition.

With every fresh security need comes something new to learn. Explosive blasts, for example, involve two impacts, from the initial shock wave and from a rebound force.

“Initially, we were not prepared for blast-resistant buildings,” Preston King said. “It requires a very sophisticated kind of engineering and specialized welding. It has to be built to a level a lot stronger than ballistic or bullet resistance.”

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Virtually no work is done by B.I.G. at the customer’s site. All the booths are pre-wired for lighting and other electronic equipment and then shipped by flatbed truck.

“If it won’t fit on a flatbed, we won’t do it,” Preston King said.

Although some of B.I.G.'s booths resemble the top half of an armored bank truck or a toolshed, many others among more than 300 individually designed models are made to blend almost seamlessly with the environment they are designed to protect. These can have zinc or copper roofs, gold-plated finials or arches, brick or stone facades, even cedar siding.

Security experts say it is part of the fine line a business such as B.I.G. walks in the post-9/11 world in marketing itself to customers that are providing security but also projecting an image.

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“Sometimes, the message you want to project is that we remain an open society, and aesthetic design elements are in the interests of the nation there,” said James E. Moore II, a professor at USC’s Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events. “At other times, the message you are sending is, ‘We just protected the bejesus out of this.... We are in control.’ ”

Will Riley, an account manager for SecureUSA Inc. of Cumming, Ga., which puts together perimeter security packages for business and government clients, said customers initially didn’t care how the protections against terrorism looked. Simple concrete barriers and guard booths were acceptable.

But over the last 24 months, customers have been demanding aesthetically muted protection that can mimic the architecture that is being guarded.

“Design-friendly and design-conscious guard booths are key in terms of what customers want to see now,” Riley said.

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Joe Banker, regional sales manager for ASSI Security Inc. of Irvine, installs security systems and parking control systems for customers around the state.

“No one else has their versatility in terms of design,” Banker said about B.I.G. “They innovate. They come out ahead of everyone else.”

This month B.I.G. delivered its most elaborate and expensive project yet.

The combination guard booth and information center sits at the entrance to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s 689-acre Janelia Farm biomedical research complex in Loudoun County, Va. Costing $110,000, the air-conditioned structure is wired for high-speed Internet access and includes “elaborate cabinetry” and a restroom, Dave King said.

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“We’re very proud of it,” he said. “It will be the first structure you see when you visit this state-of-the-art biomedical research complex and the last thing you see when you leave.”


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