Zooming across the airfield at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in a golf cart, Mike Toscano looked out at hundreds of vendors' booths and grinned. Salespeople had come from all over the world to sell the government "defense" equipment -- gas masks in one booth, an armored Ford sport-utility vehicle in another, four-foot-high insta-barriers made of sand in yet another.
Toscano, head of the Defense Department agency that puts on the force protection expo, remembers the first show, in 1997. The Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia had been bombed the previous year, killing 19 U.S. servicemen, and the government concluded that better early warning equipment could have prevented some deaths -- and that officials needed to be better synchronized with the security industry.
But it went farther than that, said Toscano, chairman of the Physical Security Equipment Action Group.
"We've created an industry is what's happened," he said beaming one day last week as he toured the expo and its 560 vendors, up from 180 in 1997. Over three days, the event drew 10,000 government shoppers, including representatives of local and state police departments and all branches of the military.
Fueled primarily by federal spending, the security industry has been booming in recent years. That has been especially true in the Washington region, as companies look to cash in on their proximity to the capital. Officials of some of those companies noted with interest the increased competition at this year's show, the military's largest security expo.
"It seems like there are more vendors than attendees this year," said Jack O'Neil, vice president of the JGW Group, a Fairfax City company that came to sell products including gas masks and a device the size of a vacuum cleaner that can decontaminate rooms of such agents as anthrax.
Where the first show offered 1,000 products, this one offered 3,000, including remotely operated weapons systems, underwater grenades and an alloy steel capsule the size of a large exercise ball in which a 10-pound explosive can be detonated safely with nothing visible but a small puff of steam coming out the top. It could be used to eliminate bombs found in crowded areas.
"When we started, there were two companies that made barriers" to protect buildings or military encampments, said Bob Brletich, a contractor hired to help coordinate the show for the Defense Department. "Now there are 18."
Terry Gibson with Science Applications International Corp., which employs 16,000 people in the Washington area, said only time will tell how many of the new businesses will survive. His research and engineering company has been in business for 36 years.
"There have always been a lot of companies that have tried to make a quick buck," said Gibson, vice president of business development for security and transportation. "If there's 18 barrier companies, 15 may not be able" to deliver the products promised in their brochures.
Although the Defense Department is being confronted by sharp spike in new security companies, there is also a lot of consolidation, and it's not clear how long the growth will continue, said Anton Reut, vice president of business development with CMA, which helps companies win Defense contracts.
"Think about just two years ago with homeland security, and everybody was running into it," he said. "I think you can say at some point it will level off and get into a steady state more than a developmental state, but when will that occur? Is it two years from now? Four years?
"The only people who can really answer that are the people in the government because they know what they are looking for," he said.
For now, communities as far south of the District as Stafford and Spotsylvania are counting on that growth and building millions of square feet of office space they hope will be filled by defense contractors.
Ultimately, the industry relies on need. "The whole industry has grown based on what we now perceive to be the threat," Toscano said.
Philip Salinas, director of expeditionary operations with Technology Associates International Corp. in Stafford County, said he expects the competition to increase. The company, which is based in California and has an office in Stafford, has about 120 employees and customizes software for purposes including security.
"I don't see the anti-terrorism business going away any time soon," Salinas said. "I have to believe even schools will have to take a much stronger look at security measures than they did years ago. It's sad, but it's just the world we live in."