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Mass shooting fears keep Butler-based defense contractor busy

| Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Defense contractor Ibis Tek demonstrates how bullets fired with an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle are caught 'like a catchers mitt' by the bulletproof glass panel. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Law enforcement officials get a close-up look at two bulletproof glass panels during a tour of defense contractor Ibis Tek in Butler. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Michael Travis, a school administrator in Indiana County, looked at the back of a tall slab of bulletproof glass into which a man with an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle had just emptied a high-capacity clip.

The bullets pulverized nearly all of the 6- by 3-foot pane of glass into a white powder, but it still stood. It had deflected the first volley of nine bullets, and then blocked all but one of the next 30. The one that slipped through — near the lower-right corner from the shooter's perspective — likely punched into the same hole drilled by a previous bullet. “Thirty-eight of 39,” Travis said quietly, his face impassive, his gaze analytical.

About 50 law enforcement officers surrounded Travis at the Butler headquarters of defense contractor Ibis Tek, where workers showed off the “transparent armor” that's making its way from Humvees in war zones to courthouses — and, possibly, schools — in Western Pennsylvania.

The company plans to donate two 6-by-3 panes to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. Zappala had considered giving them to the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, but “decided to leave (security decisions) in UPMC's hands,” spokesman Mike Manko said. Zappala hasn't decided what to do with the panes, though Manko said they likely will be placed somewhere in the courthouse, perhaps at one of the entrances.

His office's interest in the panels helped Ibis Tek refine its design, said company Vice President Rachel Berg­lund. The original modular pane design left a small gap when two panes were placed side by side; because of Zappala's office's interest after the Western Psych shooting, the company machined a thick plate that screws in place between the panes. In places such as courthouses, that could create a safe place for guards to watch people as they approach metal detectors.

It's a new front for Ibis Tek, the largest supplier of bullet-proof glass to the Army. Tom Buckner founded the company in 2000, and its work force quickly grew to about 600 several years ago when insurgent tactics in two wars drove demand for Ibis Tek's windows. Large photographs of soldiers standing behind the shattered-but-intact Ibis Tek glass that saved them cover the company's lobby walls.

As those wars wound down and defense spending fell, Ibis Tek's work force shrank by half, Berglund said.

But mass shootings in places such as Western Psych in Oakland and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., drew interest to Ibis Tek from civilian law enforcement and, more recently, school officials. Gunman John Shick walked into Western Psych in March and shot a respiratory therapist to death and wounded several others before University of Pittsburgh police officers fatally shot him.

“We're going to start working with district attorneys and schools in helping them get in place plans for containing a shooter,” Berglund said.

Turning schools into fortresses isn't in the cards, she said. Even if a school has the money to make its doors bulletproof, what about all those windows?

The solutions they've come up with reflect the awful nature of the problems they're trying to solve. Take, for example, the Kevlar pad shaped to fit inside a child's backpack, which the company says will stop a .357-caliber bullet. It's available on Ibis Tek's website for $115.

When Travis started his job as the Indiana Area School District's transportation and safety coordinator in the mid-1990s, he focused mainly on school bus schedules. The “safety” part usually meant workplace safety, the sort of thing handled by OSHA, not SWAT teams.

“Over the years, it's changed,” Travis said Thursday, a little less than a month after gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults in Sandy Hook Elementary School. “We're looking at everything.”

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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