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Gas Masks and Air Packs

Do you know what to look for in a respirator?

March 01, 2004  |  by Shawn Hughes

BlackHawk’s gas mask adapter kit allows you to drink through your mask.

While actually known by professionals as Air Purifying Respirators (APRs) and Self-Contained Breathing Apparatuses (SCBAs), gas masks and air packs, once only found with specialized units, are fast becoming a staple in the patrol officer and first responder's gear bag.

But which one is right for you? With heightened attention to the needs of the patrol officer, a purchasing agent or prepared officer could be easily overwhelmed.

Here is a look at what to look for in a respirator system to make sure it meets your department's needs.


The torrent of mask sales since 9/11 has attracted the attention of several governing bodies. While many in the law enforcement community believe that a system made to military specifications, or "mil-spec," is always adequate, there is another standard that warrants attention.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the vanguard for inspecting the numerous respirators and determining which are safe for civilian responders in an environment where weapons of mass destruction have been deployed. Knowledgeable insiders say that the standards this agency is currently creating will eventually find their way into Federal law. This is important because purchases now may not be certifiable or upgradeable in the very near future.

Keep in mind there are some companies that tout their product simply as "NIOSH Approved." Many systems that are approved for certain industrial environments may not be suitable for the special needs of the patrol officer in a WMD environment. Look for the NIOSH CBRN seal of approval for WMD certification.

Another agency, OSHA, has issued findings on the serviceability of certain "military" respirators in industrial settings.

Which One?

There are only three styles of respirator suitable for police first response work: Self Contained Breathing Apparatuses, Powered Air Purifying Respirators, and Air Purifying Respirators.


Experts agree, the best protection comes in a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, or SCBA. There are two distinct advantages to an SCBA. The first is that you always carry with you a known supply of good, fresh air. This allows you to enter areas that may not only be contaminated, but may not have enough oxygen to support you. For instance, in a confined space such as a building, subway, or even an area like a parking garage, it is possible for a device to expell so much agent that it displaces the available oxygen. Entering this type of environment with a simple respirator could be fatal, as the respirator will remove the contaminants, but there won't be any oxygen left to breathe.

The second advantage to an SCBA is that it offers a higher level of protection against contaminants through positive pressure.

All Air Purifying Respirators operate on the concept of negative pressure. This means that when you suck in to breathe, you create a vacuum, which then draws air in. Hopefully, this is through a filter. But if your mask has a pinhole or crack in it, you could potentially suck in unfiltered outside air instead.

An SCBA supplies a constant source of pressurized air to the facepiece. When you inhale, the SCBA regulator mechanism forces extra air in, keeping a positive pressure in the facepiece at all times. If there is a pinhole, crack, or even a split-second gap in your mask seal, the overpressure created by the SCBA regulator mechanism blows air out of the leak, preventing entry of outside contaminants.

SCBAs aren't the total solution, however. They can be extremely heavy, bulky, and provide additional handles for an adversary to use against you in close-quarter combat. Also, they are the most expensive systems to purchase.


The PAPR, or Positive Pressure Air Purifying Respirator, combines the increased safety and ease of breathing of an SCBA with the lighter weight, decreased cost per unit, and ease of operation of an Air Purifying Respirator. Officers using PAPRs can work longer and more comfortably, because of the lesser strain put on them compared with an SCBA or APR. The best PAPRs will state that they are sealed against entry of contaminants, easy to decontaminate, and have intrinsically safe batteries and electronics.

PAPRs aren't without drawbacks, either, however. They require a power source to operate. Most use rechargeable batteries, which, like your flashlight, can go dead when you need them. Also, the fan motor that supplies the air for the positive pressure can be noisy. Some lower-tiered brands have had problems with the switching and motor regulation circuits. Then there's that pesky hose used to connect your facepiece to the blower/filter unit, which in a riot situation could pose a problem.

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