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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / First Line Furniture President Rich Trubacek, right, and Vice President AJ Unger demonstrate their bulletproof desk for the Times Free Press from Office Furniture Warehouse on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

For more than two decades, Rich Trubacek built and sold desks, chairs and other furniture at CI Select Furniture to aid students and office workers performing their tasks in schools and commercial businesses in St. Louis.

For all their business success, Trubacek and some of his installers began wondering a couple of years ago if they could not find a way to use the furniture they were selling to also make schools and workplaces more secure. That effort crystallized on Valentine's Day last year when a gunman opened fire at a high school in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others.

"We kept seeing these interviews with students who said they were told to get behind their desks, but the bullets tore right through their desks and the desks provided very little protection," Trubacek said.

Trubacek and two other furniture veterans — A.J.Unger and Kyle Kostos — decided to start their own business to make a bullet-proof desk to offer secure cover for those in schools or workplaces when a gunman attacks and begins firing. Through the company they started — First Line Furniture — a flip-top, bullet-proof desk was developed that includes wheels and a handle for both mobility and protection.

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A desk for protection

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The patented design will shield those behind the desk — or desks when several are lined up against one another — from nearly all ballistics, even those fired with semi-automatic guns such as AR-15s or similar weapons.

"This is a way to protect groups of people, not just a single individual," Trubacek said. "We teach students to duck and hide, but they often don't have a secure way to hide."

The inventors have continually worked to enhance their First Line desks, including putting orange identification strips to alert people of the desks that are bullet-proof and using lock-down casters to allow users to push the desks around a classroom as needed in the event of an emergency.

"If something were to happen and a shooter comes into a school, the teacher could flip up his or her desk, push it to the doorway on its casters and thereby contain any threat," Trubacek said.

From their St. Louis headquarters, First Line has reached out to distributors across the country, including John "JJ" Jerman, the president and founder of Office Furniture Warehouse in Chattanooga who was immediately interested in the furniture.

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"It's an impressive piece of furniture that works just like as flip-top desk but it also offers the great advantage of being a tool to protect people in those rare but unfortunately too often cases of when an armed gunman attacks a school or business," Jerman said. "The student desks can be put in a triangle and create a barrier for students to hide behind and the bigger teachers' desk could be moved up against any door and, with the wheels locked, would be almost impossible to move," Jerman said.

So far, the prototypes of the new desks are being made in California. But Jerman has helped bring the inventors to Chattanooga where they are also considering making the desks with a local producer.

"Chattanooga is a great distribution location," Unger said.

First Line officials recently met with Charles Wood, the vice president of economic development for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce who urged the company to consider making the product in Chattanooga. First Line also demonstrated its desks during an emergency drill at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where local police praised the safety offered by the flip-top desks.

The First Line desks are unique and enjoy patent protection, but the initial $8,000 retail price tag for a single desk (likely less if bought in bulk) is still 10 times or so as much as a standard desk. But Trubacek said the versatility of the desk and its safety features should entice schools and businesses to consider buying such desks for protection against the potential of an armed attack within their premises. He also hopes to gain efficiencies and cost savings as more desks are made.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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