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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2004


ESS gains military favor

Ketchum company becomes leading provider of combat eyewear

Express Staff Writer

As U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. James R. Yakubsin last April recounted the events of an enemy bomb exploding amid his Iraq-based anti-armor team, he became one of a growing numbers of soldiers who have said the products of a Ketchum goggle manufacturer saved his eyesight.

"I had my goggles over my eyes when (an explosive device) went off," Yakubsin said. "I was thrown against my radio in the vehicle and some shrapnel hit my goggles. If I hadn’t been wearing those, I wouldn’t have my eyesight now."

A soldier from the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division wears ESS goggles while manning a mounted .50 caliber machine gun atop a Hummer patrol vehicle in Afghanistan. Courtesy photo

The protective eyewear Lance Cpl. Yakubsin was wearing during the attack was a special-forces goggle produced by Eye Safety Systems, a small but expanding company based in Ketchum’s commercial district.

ESS was founded in 1998 by John Dondero, a longtime Wood River Valley resident who started his work in the goggle industry some 20 years earlier, when he was a product engineer with Ketchum-based Scott USA.

Dondero was once the only employee of ESS, which in its early years focused on developing heat-resistant protective eyewear for wilderness fire fighters.

Today, 13 ESS employees work to supply thousands of high-tech, activity-specific goggles to military units, fire departments and law-enforcement agencies across the globe. The company is the leading free-market provider of goggles to the U.S. Armed Forces.

"It’s actually gone beyond where I envisioned," said Dondero, who remains the president of ESS. "But sometimes surprises are good."

After developing its first goggles for the fire-fighting industry, ESS in 2001 took advantage of a change in federal regulations that allowed the four major branches of the military to purchase equipment on the open market, rather than through specific military contracts.

For ESS General Manager Brian Ross, hired by Dondero in 1999, the mission was clear: to supply the military with goggles that were far superior to the standard-issue eyewear, which had essentially remained unchanged since it was conceived in the 1940s.

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. James R. Yakubsin displays a pair of ESS goggles he was wearing while his anti-armor team was attacked earlier this year in Iraq. He said the goggles saved his eyesight by blocking shrapnel from an enemy bomb. Courtesy photo

The first ESS military account was established in the fall of 2001 with the U.S. Navy.

"We started out on the flight deck of the USS Constellation," Ross said. "We were replacing a goggle that was designed in 1945."

Defined in company literature as "high adrenaline eye protection," ESS military goggles feature extra-thick polycarbonate lenses that exceed the military’s stringent ballistic-impact requirements.

"The lens can withstand a shotgun blast from 35 feet," Ross said.

Some ESS lenses are designed to deflect the impact of laser beams, which can cause blindness.

It has been estimated by the military that 16 percent of combat soldiers receive eye injuries.

"About 70 percent of our business is to the military," Dondero said, noting that the majority of U.S. Army personnel sent to the Middle East in the last two years have been outfitted with ESS goggles. "The fire industry is a close second."

ESS fire-fighting goggles have anti-scratch and anti-fog coatings and are designed to snap on and off fire helmets in seconds.

Most sales of fire-fighting goggles are to municipalities and cities, including the city of Ketchum.

John Rathfon, senior lieutenant for the Ketchum Fire Department, said Ketchum firefighters have been using and testing ESS goggles since the company was started six years ago.

"All 50 members of the department have goggles," Rathfon said.

Some members of the Ketchum Fire Department have been featured in ESS print advertising and on the company Internet site, Ross noted.

ESS fire goggles were used by thousands of firefighters in southern California last year, when intense wildfires burned more than 300,000 acres of public and private land in the region.

Law-enforcement goggles made by ESS are used in the United States primarily by Special Weapons and Tactics teams. Through one of numerous international accounts established by ESS, the protective goggles are issued to members of the Hong Kong Police Department, Ross said.

Although ESS does not release its sales figures, company officials will acknowledge that sales of their products are escalating steadily.

"After the September 11 attacks our products started to show up in lots of news stories," Ross said. "Now, it’s gotten so you can’t pick up a USA Today or a Time magazine without seeing ESS goggles."

Indeed, ESS goggles are featured prominently in a globally circulated photograph of President George W. Bush on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003. The president visited the aircraft carrier to announce the end of substantial combat in the Iraq War.

In 2004, ESS is offering approximately 30 specific types of goggles that are derived from two primary frame designs. The company is also marketing several new models of protective sunglasses.

ESS eyewear is manufactured by contract in the world’s largest goggle factory, located in Clearfield, Utah, north of Salt Lake City.

With sports-goggle producers Smith Sports Optics, Scott USA and Carrera Sport also based in Ketchum, the growth of ESS has truly established the small resort city as the goggle capital of the world.

However, Ross said, testimonials like that of Lance Cpl. Yakubsin clearly bring to light the unique role of ESS in the goggle marketplace.

"Every week we get new phone calls and e-mails from soldiers all over the world thanking us for finally delivering an eyewear protection system that is comfortable and highly protective."


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