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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


For the majority of agencies, the most commonly found respirator system continues to be the full-face, air purifying respirator. As Gary Weeks, a retired U.S. Air Force Disaster preparedness NCO says, "I would never recommend anything less than a full-face respirator for a first responder who could find him or herself as the first person to arrive on site or anyone who could find him or herself in a downwind hazard area."

In its most basic form, an APR consists of a facepiece, sight lens (or lenses), filter (or filters), valves, voice diaphragm, and attachment assembly. It is the revolver of the respirator family: uncomplicated respiratory protection at a reasonable price.

Purchasing Points

While it might be easy enough to decide which basic type of respirator would be best for your agency, make sure to evaluate the differences in its main components when choosing a specific model.

Facepieces on the best respirators are made of newer halo-butyl thermoplastic formulations, such as Hycar. These formulations offer increased resistance to chemical agents and toxic industrial materials than older silicone masks, while at the same time offering a better mask-face seal by being more flexible. Facepieces should also be as externally smooth as possible. Any irregular surfaces can harbor contaminants.

Which sight lens assembly to use is a controversial matter. There is much discussion on which is better, single or double. Unfortunately, there is no clear winner. The single assemblies offer a wider field of view, especially downward, and seem to fog less, but are more prone to distort your vision. The double-lensed assemblies seem to be preferred by special operations and SWAT officers for improved weapons sighting.

Filters are a critical choice. There are several proprietary fittings for filters, and if you buy one style while your department issues another, it could be a serious issue.

Most military masks use a 40mm NATO specification screw-on fitting. If there is ever a major incident requiring the use of respirators, the odds of the National Guard CST or Marine CBIRF Team being there with their supplies are pretty good. Also, most agencies have a relationship with their local armory. It behooves you to be as compatible as possible so you can share filters with other agencies.

Next, there are several dozen types of filters. Only two are suitable for the patrol officer. The first is called a P100 filter. This is good for riots and training. For a WMD event, the only filter you can safely use is one that is NBC rated. The name varies by manufacturer, so be sure you get the correct one before you need it.

Also, if you are contemplating buying a dual-filtered system, can you blank off one side? Sighting a videocamera or weapon will be difficult, if not impossible, with one filter blocking the way.


When purchasing a respirator system, consider accessories. The smart purchaser will buy a mask with a drinking tube assembly. When wearing a mask for any period of time, especially in addition to heavy protective gear, even in cooler climates, the need to rehydrate is essential. There are several drinking systems that interface safely with respirators, allowing you to drink while masked.

Another item to consider is an on-mask voice amplifier. It is difficult to communicate while masked, so this lightweight accessory makes it much easier to direct crowds or give commands.

Several respirator systems offer integrated communications points, as well. This makes talking to fellow officers much easier and clearer than using a shoulder mic or on-radio microphone.

Of course, hearing is only so useful if you can't see properly. A spectacle kit is a must if you wear glasses.

Finally, you will want something to carry and store your investment in. It is recommended, especially with single- port sight lenses, that you never store a respirator in the folded position for long periods of time.

And don't forget the most important (and required) accessories: fit testing and training.

After arming yourself with the facts about respirators, your purchase will be the best one for your mission and needs.

Shawn Hughes is a 12-year veteran police officer and bomb technician. He is the WMD and explosives lead instructor for the company Tactical Response.

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