VANCOUVER, Wash. — Andy Lehto seemed comfortable peering out from inside the chest-high, orange object, which looked a bit like the offspring of a Christmas ornament mating with a Coast Guard buoy.
If a tornado, earthquake or — perhaps in a parallel universe — tsunami were to suddenly hit Camas, the unusual-looking pod would do its job, Lehto said, keeping him safe and even helping him signal for aid in the aftermath.
Lehto and two friends, Randy Harper and Neil Jackson, all from Camas, Clark County, created the Rescue-Pod about a year ago after watching what happened during the 2004 Indian Ocean and 2011 Japanese tsunamis. And in the past few months, their device has been featured on national TV shows, including the History Channel’s Nov. 26 episode of “Invention USA.”
“Nothing’s going to breach this thing,” Jackson said, patting the pod’s side. “We’ve abused this thing in every way we could dream of. On the show, they fired three two- by-fours and three coconuts at it out of a cannon, and it did just fine.”
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Lehto, Jackson and Harper, who work as a commercial driver, information-technology expert and longshoreman, respectively, have driven boats over the device and rolled it into a lake, among other things.
“Anything else people want us to try, if it’s legal and in the realm of possibility, we’ll do it,” Jackson said confidently.
Harper, who did most of the inventing, said once inside the pod, “you’re basically in a big helmet. You’re in a hard shell, with an inflatable life vest around you, a locator beacon, a bilge pump and even some water and food.”
Pods can fit either two or four people, depending on design. Each has seats at the bottom with a five-point harness to keep passengers from shifting or banging against the walls.
The 250-pound pod, made from a modified spherical water tank sold by a Washougal company, is also extremely buoyant.
The special bed liner keeps it floating upright, making it almost impossible to tip over, the three said.
In one test, the trio filled the pod with water and tossed it in a lake. It still floated.
“Everything in it is made for marine use,” Jackson said. “We’ve never even gotten it to leak.”
The company is selling the two-man pod, outfitted, for $4,500 and the four-man pod, similarly outfitted, for $6,500, Jackson said.
And it’s cheaper and safer than a Japanese-made product they’ve seen advertised, they said.
“That one, it’s got a door on the side, it’s more expensive than ours and it’s dangerous,” Jackson said.
“It has a pole in the middle you’re supposed to hang on to. And it has no GPS or safety devices or anything. It looks like an oversized tennis ball.”
Their device can also be buried and secured to protect from tornadoes or earthquakes.
Their fledgling company can install it for less than a typical tornado shelter, the three men said.
So far, they’ve seen growing interest from a variety of places.
“We didn’t start making them until the History Channel show came out, but since then we’ve been talking to people all over the world,” Jackson said.
The partners are hoping to ramp up production enough to sell 20-30 a month, possibly more.
“Everything we use to make these is local,” Harper said.
“The furthest away we go for anything is the bed liner, and that’s made in Portland. The rest is here in Camas and Washougal.”
The eventual goal, if they can sell enough of them, is to hire more workers from Clark County and keep the production as local as possible, he said.
“The whole point is to try to create some sustainable jobs here in our area,” Harper said. “We want to be able to hire people and pay them a good wage, support our economy.”