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Local companies play defense

From a portable device that can detect explosives and toxic substances, to a virtual world where law enforcement officers can securely share information, companies north of Boston are arming the Pentagon with the tools it needs to fight terrorism.

While the giants of Massachusetts defense contracting, such as Raytheon Co., often capture headlines for their work, several smaller companies in the region are quietly securing lucrative homeland security and defense contracts.

"We have a very strong base in our district, with people who are well educated and capable of doing the kind of work that federal officials are seeking," said US Representative John F. Tierney, a Salem Democrat who has lobbied for local companies on Capitol Hill. "We want to make sure they have opportunities to compete for these contracts and perform them."

But working with government agencies has gotten more complicated in recent years, with much of the bidding being done via secure websites that are often unreliable, according to Jon Latorella, cofounder and chief executive officer of LocatePLUS Holdings, a Beverly-based company with 60 employees working in four states.

"We get two types of government contracts: smaller ones, through field offices, which are easy to apply for, and larger ones," Latorella said. "Securing the big contracts has become unwieldy, so much so that we now have someone who works full-time navigating the bid process."

The effort seems to be paying off. In recent years, LocatePLUS has worked with the FBI to analyze the manifests of the four planes involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in an attempt to identify people who were not on the agency's watch list, but should be. The company also helped law enforcement officers investigating the sniper case in Washington to track the movements of snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.

Other companies in the region have not been as fortunate. Tierney noted that numerous businesses in Essex County are finding it difficult to navigate the Washington bureaucracy. The most common dilemma: knowing to whom they should pitch their products.

In an effort to help area corporations get an edge on their competition, Tierney will hold a workshop from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday in the Enterprise Center at Salem State College. The goal of the event is to give women and minority business owners the information they need to vie successfully for government work. In the past two years, area businesses have won more than 300 contracts for defense and homeland security work, pumping millions of dollars into the local economy, Tierney said.

Area companies both large and small have jumped into the game, winning contracts with local, state, and federal agencies -- from front-line defenders, including suburban police and fire departments, to federal agencies that are identified by an alphabet soup of acronyms: TSA, NIH, USCG, DOD, DHS, DEA, ATF, and FBI.

Implant Sciences Corp. in Wakefield is among them. The company last week announced that it is producing the "Quantum Sniffer" for the Army. The handheld, battery-operated gadget instantly analyzes air particles to determine whether common explosives are present in equipment, cargo, or packages.

The device is expected to reduce the workload of the military's working dogs, and boost the company's bottom line. To date, Implant Science has been awarded a total of $3.5 million by the Navy and Transportation Security Administration to develop bomb detection devices. The Army contract is worth about $300,000.

Georgetown-based Tesla Systems Inc. is equipping public safety buildings in Somerville with specialized video cameras to help law enforcement officials detect suspicious activities, according to Joel Barrera, project director for the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, which is coordinating security efforts for Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Melrose, Revere, Somerville, and Winthrop.

And in Beverly, Groove Networks Inc. is helping to develop the Homeland Security Information Network. The communications system will ultimately link thousands of users in hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country, as well as certain businesses that could be the target of a terrorist attack, to the Homeland Security Department in Washington.

"We are involved at all levels -- local, state, and federal -- making it possible for users on the Homeland Security Information Network to share documents and pictures in virtual space, without worrying that the information will be compromised," said David Fowler, executive vice president of marketing and business development at Groove Networks. "The information is encrypted and immediately replicated to other people's machines, so every user on the network can instantly see pictures of suspected terrorists, or find out about areas that ought to be searched for suspicious items."

Each day, local, state, and federal agents sift through hundreds of pieces of intelligence, which come to them via the Homeland Security Information Network. In the coming months, the center expects to be busy with reports of "suspicious activity" surrounding Fourth of July festivities and the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

During many highly publicized events, and at some 100 airports nationwide, technology developed by the Thermo Electron Corp. is used to detect a range of possible threats, from dirty bombs to chemical and biological weapons. The company employs 11,000 workers in offices around the world, including one at the Cummings Center in Beverly.

"We segment the security market into different categories: border and port protection, first responders in our local communities, military and infrastructure, and events like the national conventions," said Tom Loewald, vice president of global sales for the environmental instruments division at Thermo Electron. "All of those areas are ones we participate in."

For some companies, government work has become a steady source of income in a sluggish economy, as contracts in some industries have become more difficult to come by.

Local boat-building companies, for example, have in recent years secured orders with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Coast Guard, and the Air Force, as well as the Israeli Navy and various police forces.

In Marblehead, Ribcraft USA is producing rigid inflatable patrol boats for the Coast Guard and Air Force, contracts worth a combined $500,000, according to Matthew Velluto, director of marketing for the company.

In Rowley, Winninghoff Boats Inc. has built 17 aluminum boats for front-line defenders. Both companies have fewer workers than a typical platoon.

"We only build about half a dozen boats a year, so one good-sized boat can represent a good percentage of our total," said Mark W. Winninghoff, vice president of the Rowley company. "Overall, about 30 to 40 percent of our business is related to homeland security."

Brenda J. Buote may be reached via e-mail at bbuote@globe.com.

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