In yet another case of I didn’t know that was manufactured in Idaho, this month’s member feature is about Smoke Guard, an Idaho-based company that designs, assembles, and tests flexible fire and smoke protection systems right here in the Treasure Valley. Smoke Guard started their business doing what Idaho manufacturers do best, solving a customer problem and they are still innovating to solve their customers’ fire protection challenges over 30 years later.
“Smoke Guard was the brainchild of a local architect working on a historic renovation downtown,” said Beth Pitkin, Architectural and Design Manager. “It’s an old lodge hall and he envisioned an open four-story atrium lobby.” At the time, the Uniform Building Code (UBC) required him to protect the elevator openings with an enclosed lobby and that just wasn’t Tom Allen’s vision for that project.”
The fire safety protection industry was ripe for innovation when fire safety guidelines and codes changed drastically in the aftermath of the tragic fire at the MGM Grand Las Vegas in 1980. That now infamous fire was limited to the first floor, but the burning material created toxic fumes and smoke which ascended throughout the hotel via vertical elevator shafts led to the deaths of 85 people from smoke inhalation.
Tom started tinkering in his North End Boise garage. He was neighbors with Eric Hostline, a former HP employee who worked at a local sheet metal fabricator and together along with the owner of Hobson Elevator, they came up with a better solution – a rolling magnetic gasketing device that attaches itself magnetically as it rolls the smoke curtain down the elevator frame. Tom ended up writing an acceptance criteria for what he initially developed, the elevator protection product still sold by Smoke Guard. There was nothing like it on the market, and the company grew in on the west coast, particularly California because the UBC there required it. Fittingly, Eric became Smoke Guard’s first employee and even though he has left the company, he’s still out in the field, talking to customers as a Smoke Guard dealer himself and bringing the challenges he hears about back to the company.
Acceptance for Smoke Guard’s solution grew nationally under the International Building Code requirements that address smoke containment at the elevator and in other vulnerable areas of a building. As Smoke Guard’s market expanded, they went from being an alternate solution to more of a mainstream solution. Today, they have lots of competitors, many from Europe where they’ve been using deployable curtains to partition open building spaces for decades. To compete, Smoke Guard has broadened their product offering beyond protection for elevator openings to include vertically and horizontally deployed smoke curtains, as well as fire curtains that help prevent the further spread of fire.
Smoke Guard’s products are designed with the architect in mind with a goal to help them realize the design intent they want. Smoke Gard provides alternative solutions to typical problems and that’s what drives the changes they make in their products. The evolution of their products is through what the code is requiring and what customers are asking for. What separates Smoke Guard products from other solutions is their customer support and low impact on a finished design.
Smoke Guard was acquired by Capital Southwest Corporation in 2005 – from which CSW Industrials was spun off in 2015. Today, Smoke Guard plays a key role in CSWI’s Engineered Building Solutions segment, offering a wide range of fire- and smoke-rated products and systems that protect people and property. “It’s been exciting having corporate parents with the resources to grow the company to another level,” said Pitkin. “One of our sister companies has a fire lab in Houston that we can use to test materials.”
Smoke Guard’s IMA membership likely began as a result of efforts by their first president, Bill Zeigert. He believed in staying connected to the community and was always looking for opportunities to network with other local companies. Through the IMA they get ample opportunity to rub elbows with other like-minded innovators who, like Smoke Guard are striving to solve problem for their customers.