What comes to mind when you think of the most important companies? Maybe you think of companies that have the most sales or employees. Or maybe you think of companies that have Washington connections, or big name CEOs. It's natural to think of importance defined in terms of big numbers and wide recognition.

But there's another way to define importance, a very personal way. It's based upon the number of lives that are saved each year when disasters strike, and the relative handful of companies that have dedicated themselves to making that number bigger by creating products that deal with disasters. It's personal because of you. If your life is the one that's saved, or the life of someone you care about, then how important is that company to you?

And before you start mentally calculating the odds of getting killed in a hurricane or earthquake, remember this: Every year fire kills more Americans than all other natural disasters combined, and nearly half of all fires are in non-residential buildings, very possibly the kind of building you're sitting in right now. Moreover, the National Fire Protection Association shows that sprinkler systems fail in one out of six non-residential building fires.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is how few companies there are that devote themselves to manufacturing products designed specifically to save lives in the event of structural fires or other disasters, and how fewer still are based in America.

Players in this important but under-represented field, include giant Tyco International Ltd. (NYSE: TYC) which, among other things, provides a wide range of fire protection and security products, and American Medical Alert Corp. (NASDAQ: AMAC), which produces personal emergency response systems and smoke detectors that alert the company's Medical Monitoring Center. There are also some specialty companies, like Texas-based Industrial Emergency Services, that provide emergency response services for the oil and chemical industry. But rarely do you get a company that has truly broken new ground in the field.

A good example of the latter is a young Utah-based company with the unlikely name of Sector 10, Inc. (SECT.OB). The company makes variations of a streamlined cabinet containing everything conceivable that trapped building occupants might need in the event of a fire or similar catastrophe. It's packed with smoke protection hoods, first aid supply kits with tracking technology, eye wash systems, and dozens of other high and low tech items, along with battery backed-up electronics, including a touch screen display for emergency directions and wireless communication with first responders. Positioned in any kind of building, it can save lives before the responders even get there. There's nothing like it anywhere.

And yet, with the exception of Sector 10, almost no truly innovative solutions have been offered to empower and save building occupants. This is in spite of the fact that it's been almost 8 years since 9/11. This leads to a fair question: If these companies are so important, why are there so few of them? One thing is certain, however. As the number of catastrophes increase and saving lives becomes more important, these companies stand to do well with their forward-thinking products and services.