En garde

Safety advice for real estate agents:

* Always be aware of your environment. Know the exits.

* Think of your car as your armor. Park it as close to you as possible.

* Let others know where you will be, when, for how long and with whom.

* Regularly check in with a friend or co-worker.

* Require clients to identify themselves right away using a government-approved ID such as driver’s license or passport. Copy the ID and share it with office staff.

* Plan ahead to take someone you trust along when in doubt about a situation.

By Kristin Fetters-Walp

Special to The Herald

BOTHELL – An ear-piercing screech is hard to ignore. Bothell’s Misui Systems LLC is staking its success on that fact, and owner Todd Hodgen is staking wife Margaret Wojcicki’s safety on it.

A real estate agent, Wojcicki is among the first people testing the RealGuard Personal Security Alarm System. Designed especially for real estate professionals by the couple and their paid consultants, the three-part, wireless alarm system can be triggered with the press of a panic button.

The button is part of a walkie-talkie-sized personal transmitter unit that sends signals to receivers inside the property and the agent’s car. The system creates a circle of noise around the agent and the attacker.

“Noise historically has been the best form of defense,” said Randy Boroughs, Misui’s marketing vice president.

“Our primary motivation is to get the attacker away from the agent,” added Hodgen. “Once that happens, a whole new set of possibilities opens up. Agents can get a hand free or get away and lock attackers out, get in their car, go to the neighbors or start defending themselves.”

When Misui Systems received a box of sales samples earlier this month, Hodgen made sure Wojcicki had access to them.

An assault on a real estate agent at an Edmonds open house nearly two weeks ago added to the couple’s sense of urgency about getting their new product on the market. In that case, which remains under investigation by Edmonds police, the agent screamed loudly when a man groped her. He immediately fled.

The case brought up memories of a close friend and Montreal real estate agent who was attacked several years ago while showing a house.

“She had been beaten, raped and knifed,” recalled Hodgen. “I was horrified, and I immediately had my own little panic attack to think that Margaret could be exposed to that kind of danger any day at work.”

Hodgen, an engineer and 11-year veteran of voice and data network sales, began brainstorming ideas that would simultaneously help his wife protect herself and let others know she was in danger. Together, they researched the instances of violent assault against real estate professionals.

The information Hodgen was able to find through the National Institute for Occupation for Safety and Health wasn’t comforting. Despite significant declines in the number of injuries and fatalities in most other categories of work between 1980 and 1998, the job category that includes real estate services saw little improvement.

In a separate report, the institute listed the on-the-job fatality rate for that work category as 1.1 per 100,000, and estimated 1,271 on-the-job deaths between 1980 and 1995. Homicide was reported as the cause of death in most of those cases.

Real estate agent Mike Emert was murdered at a Woodinville property three years ago. That case is still under investigation.

“Our market research pointed out to us that there are enough safety issues in the industry to warrant moving forward,” Hodgen said.

In 2002, the couple launched Misui Systems by hiring an engineering firm to begin product development. The company expects to receive its first shipment of finished products this week. A Seattle-area field test is scheduled to begin Aug. 7.

If all goes well, at least one major Realtors’ association, the Pacific West Association of Realtors in California, should begin selling RealGuard to its members in September.

“We’re moving right along,” Boroughs said. “We’ve had great response from the agents at the two trade shows we’ve attended.”

At least to start with, Misui Systems is selling its products only to Realtor associations and other organizations of real estate professionals.

Last week, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors agreed to resell the products to its members.

Individual members can buy the systems, which include the personal transmitter unit, home unit and car unit, for about $320. Once an agent installs a home unit, it can work to protect anyone showing the property who has a personal transmitter.

By the end of the year, Boroughs and Hodgen said they hope to improve the system so local law enforcement officials will be notified of an agent’s location when he or she presses the panic button. At least one potential client has requested that feature, Hodgen said.

If RealGuard is successful, Hodgen said Misui’s engineers eventually might modify the software to adapt the system for use by other professionals, such as home-visit nurses.

But for Hodgen, his original intent remains foremost in his mind. “My number one goal is to get this permanently in Margaret’s car ASAP,” he said.

Kristin Fetters-Walp is a Lake Stevens freelance writer.

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