Originally created 06/12/04

Cooling vest becomes hot commodity

As Donny Jenkins watched crews on television struggling to remove debris from the fallen World Trade Center, he had an epiphany.

Those men, working in heavy, hazardous material suits, could benefit from the cooling vest he invented.

"I tried to get them some vests. I would have donated them, but I just didn't know who to call," he said.

Still, seeing those workers keyed Mr. Jenkins, co-owner of Jenkins Cooling Systems, into a new target market for his vest: safety workers, including policemen, firemen and soldiers in Iraq.

The vest, known as The Eliminator, works by running ice-cold water through a special bladder that cools a polymer in the vest. The cooling effect lasts one to three hours, depending on ambient temperature and body heat.

It differs from other cooling vests, which use frozen ice packs, because new water can easily be pumped in through special valves without removing the vest.

Mr. Jenkins, a paramedic, invented the vest about five years ago after seeing NASCAR driver Brett Bodine pass out from heat exhaustion after a race.

He and group of investors formed Jenkins Cooling Systems and have spent the past few years marketing it to manufacturers, such as aluminum producer Alcoa Inc. and International Paper Co., to improve productivity among workers in hot environments.

But it's in the safety industry that Jenkins Cooling is seeing much of its growth. The company, which sold more than 1,000 of the $225 vests last year, plans to sell more than 3,000 this year through safety contracts. Combined with sales of refilling pumps, the company hopes to break the $1 million mark in revenue.

At least 12 counties in the Southeast have received federal homeland security money to purchase the vests for people working in hazardous material suits.

The Columbia County Sheriff's Office has ordered 15 vests after a trial of two proved positive.

The company has 30 standing orders from soldiers in Iraq who want the vests in desert camouflage. Mr. Jenkins donated 10 of his vests to the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C., before the group left for Iraq.

Many soldiers are suffering in the desert heat, which is compounded by heavy bulletproof vests and other equipment. Bulletproof vests, though lifesaving, don't offer much ventilation.

The Jenkins Cooling vest fits neatly under bulletproof vests, and soldiers don't have to take the vest off to recharge it with cold water.

"We're aiming for the National Guardsmen who came out of a bank and are now driving a truck in Iraq," said Henry Claussen, the general manager of Jenkins Cooling Systems.

The demand has been so great, the company has had to back- order the 30 vests but is working diligently to get them there as soon as possible.

Reach James Gallagher at (706) 823-3227 or james.gallagher@augustachronicle.com.


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