There’s an unwritten rule that every tactical officer knows. It goes something like this: the more equipment that we are burdened with, the more difficult natural body movement becomes. In other words, a police officer carrying too much gear in a tactical situation makes a great target.
This leaves us with a brutal equation that we must solve. We must somehow balance the amount of gear we need to survive vs. the amount of gear that might indeed make movement, maneuver, combat, victory, and even survival virtually impossible.
Unfortunately, it’s really hard to determine how much equipment is too much. Worse, sometimes the proper and necessary equipment for the mission can be just as debilitating as dragging the proverbial kitchen sink into battle.
No piece of necessary equipment is more debilitating under the stress of violent aggression and physical exertion than a gas mask. Respirators aren’t built for comfort; they’re built to keep you breathing when nasty, irritating, or deadly stuff is in the air.
If you’re on a SWAT team, it’s inevitable that you will have to deploy in a gas mask. Which means that SWAT trainers must train you to work, move, and fight in a respirator. It’s not as easy as it looks.
A gas mask covers your face with neoprene or some other skintight material. The result is heat and sweat. Recently I was told the disturbing story of a Western SWAT team that decided to perform a rappelling exercise in gas masks for the first time. Several of these ultra fit officers collapsed during the training after overheating to the point that they nearly suffered heatstroke. Having your face constricted during heavy physical exertion is a serious problem, and it's one of many concerns that should be addressed cautiously in training before a team is called into action in respirators.
One of the first things a team must determine is what type of gas mask it will use. There are a lot of options. And of course the choice of mask must match the threat level that you expect to encounter.
For example, a simple OSHA-rated respirator and goggles may be enough to counter the effects of less-lethal chemical weapons that your agency may deploy in a hostage or barricade incident, but you will need something considerably more sophisticated to stand and fight in a smoke-filled building. And of course, if you are ever called into action as the result of chemical or biological terrorism, your mask and protective suit will have to be chem/bio rated and custom fit to your face to prevent minute amounts of toxin from entering your air supply and killing you.
The purpose of this article is not to educate you about types of respirators and chem/bio suits. Previous POLICE features have covered these topics in detail. (See “Preparing for the Worst,” POLICE, February 2003 and “Gas Masks and Air Packs,” POLICE, March 2004.)
I will say that there are a lot of different respirator options available and there’s a lot of bad information out there about what you may or may not need for your team. In addition to reading the articles referenced above, I would recommend that you carefully research each gas mask style and interview fellow officers who have used them operationally.
Choosing a mask is easy. Learning how to work in it is the tough part. Operational training in respirators is nobody’s idea of a day at the beach. It’s hot and it makes you feel claustrophobic. Worse, no matter how clean the faceplate or lenses, a gas mask reduces your vision, especially if you wear corrective lenses. And don’t even get me started on how hard it is to find a mask that will fit an officer who wears eyeglasses.
Interestingly, the officers who adapt most readily to working in gas masks are experienced scuba divers. This makes a lot of sense. After all, a diver must become accustomed to breathing in an environment in which he or she could not function without a regulator and would lose long-distance visibility without a mask. In other words, divers learn very quickly how to perform tasks when their faces are covered with uncomfortable masks.
Of course, a diver’s mask is not essential to his or her survival. The same can’t be said of a tactical officer’s mask in a chem/bio attack or even a smoke-filled building. What I’m getting at here is that officers must be constantly aware that they cannot take their masks off in a toxic environment, no matter how uncomfortable they become.
And let’s not kid anybody, gas masks are uncomfortable. They make you sweat, and they feel like they are constantly contracting on your face. The natural human reaction to such discomfort is to pull off the mask. Motorcyclists, football players, and others who wear head protection often tear their helmets off at first opportunity and enjoy the open air. SWAT officers have to be trained to fight this urge.
Training in Gear
When it comes to tactical movement the only way to measure your ability to move tactically and to perform with the mask is to wear it when you train. In this controlled environment, you can discover issues with the mask that will affect your performance. For example, driving while wearing a mask can be difficult. So be sure that your training program includes moving a vehicle during gas deployment.
Tactical trainers also stress that periodic inspection of the mask is critical. The mask’s straps can weaken with use and deteriorate in storage and the body can crack or develop problems with the seal. Many masks have voids for communication devices, and these are particularly vulnerable to damage. It’s also important that you be aware that just maneuvering in your mask can damage it.
As touched on previously in this article, some of the biggest issues that you will face when operating in a gas mask involve the effects of the mask and its lenses on your vision. The faceplate and/or lenses of a mask distort your vision and reduce visual acuity.
With most masks you cannot get a good fit if you wear eyeglasses. And even if you wear contact lenses the effect of the mask on your vision can be unsettling.
Even for those who don’t wear corrective lenses, masks can be difficult to adjust to because the design of the mask is likely to all but eliminate your peripheral vision. Stated very simply, you can’t see through black neoprene, so you tend to have tunnel vision when wearing a mask. This effect is lessened with some mask designs that have faceplates instead of lenses, but even with a faceplate you lose some peripheral vision.
Fortunately, over the years, cops and soldiers who have deployed in respirators have devised ways to compensate for the tunnel vision effect that comes with wearing a mask. The most common method of compensation is to keep your head turning, scanning as you move. This will prevent an attacker from being able to surprise you from one of the mask’s blind spots.
Another challenge that you will face when wearing a respirator is that the lenses or faceplate could fog. Anybody who wears eyeglasses and lives in the South knows this phenomenon very well. When you walk out of an air-conditioned building on a hot and humid day, you have to take off your glasses and wipe them.
The same fogging happens to the faceplates and lenses on gas masks. Except you can’t take a mask off during an operation and wipe it clean of fog. Fortunately, cops, soldiers, and other experienced mask users have developed ways to cope with this problem. A thin coat of soap applied to the lenses or faceplate can stop fogging and so can a coating of anti-fog spray. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if there is enough humidity in the air, your mask may fog regardless of what steps you take to prevent it from doing so.
Your vision is affected by a number of factors when wearing a mask and so is your aim. Even when the faceplate or lenses are crystal clear and the target is right in front of you, getting a good sight picture while wearing a mask can be difficult.
Fortunately, different types of weapons are more or less affected by the shooter being forced to aim through a gas mask. Let’s take a look at pistols, shotguns, and subguns, rifles, and carbines.
By far the easiest weapon to aim when wearing a gas mask is a pistol. A handgun can be moved into a position that allows good acquisition of the sights quickly, even when wearing a mask. Of course, handguns are neither as accurate nor as powerful as long guns, so they won’t necessarily be your best weapon during an operation, even if they are easier to aim for a shooter wearing a gas mask.
A shotgun is an excellent short-range weapon for police operations that require gas masks. Since the shotgun is fired mostly by feel, and it is possible to make good short-range hits using only the front sight, the shotgun can be used adequately by holding it just below eye level thereby greatly reducing the effects of the mask on the shooter’s aim.
Subguns, rifles, and carbines are the most difficult weapons to aim while wearing a respirator. The cheek weld demanded in precision shooting is not possible when the shooter is using a mask.
There are fortunately some ways to minimize this effect. My personal rifle has high-visibility sights that give good potential for acquisition even when wearing masks.
And certain techniques have been developed by cops and soldiers over the years to compensate for the problems presented by the mask when shooting a rifle or carbine.
One popular technique is to cant the weapon to one side so that the respirator does not contact the stock. Using this method, the weapon is tilted on the shoulders and the sights brought into line with the eyes for adequate aiming. However, control is poor with this technique. It simply doesn’t work, and point of aim and point of impact are adversely affected when canting the rifle stock from perpendicular.
I’ve found that a really good method to improve short-range rifle and subgun accuracy when wearing a mask is to use the front sight only. Some practice must be undertaken to master this technique, but a general rule is that out to 15 yards the bullet will strike several inches above the point of aim when only the front sight is used.
Front sight aiming is a short-range technique that has been taught for many years and used operationally more than once. It works but, before you use it on an operation, practice it on the range or in a shoot house. It takes some getting used to.
To overcome the problems that you will encounter in operations that require gas masks, you need to train in gas masks. It’s miserable, but only by staying in touch with the strong and weak points of your gear can you be tactically prepared. In a combat situation, wearing masks or respirators, your efficiency is going to be reduced. It’s important that you know these limitations and have ways to compensate for them before you are called out to a critical incident that requires you to use respirators.