Why Reusable Half-Mask Respirators Are a Good Option for the Fire Service and EMS
According to 2018 statistics from the National Fire Protection Association, the InterAgency Board for Emergency Preparedness and Response (IAB) says that 64% of calls to fire departments were for medical aid, and the IAB expects this to only increase because of COVID-19.1 Firefighters and EMS personnel are on the front lines of community safety during this pandemic, so you need protective equipment that will help to protect your own health while you do your job.
With disposable N95 masks—which provide the minimum level of protection recommended for first responders who might come in contact with aerosolized particles containing the SARS-CoV-2 virus1—currently in short supply, reusable elastomeric respirators are a cost-effective, space-saving, and effective supplement to disposable N95s.
The IAB identifies elastomerics as their preferred form of respiratory protection,1 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA),2 and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) approve3 them for use against COVID-19.
What Reusable Half-Mask Respirators Are
This type of tight-fitting, reusable respirator covers the user’s mouth and nose, so you’ll hear it referred to as a half-mask, or half-face, respirator. These respirators are made of synthetic material or rubber and are designed to be cleaned and disinfected so they can be placed back into service and reused. Users can easily swap out the filters within the reusable half-mask respirators.4 This includes a P100 filter, which is the IAB’s preferred level of protection against COVID-19.5
Who Can Use Half-Masks
Because of the pandemic-related shortage in N95 masks, the FDA authorized people working in healthcare settings to temporarily use reusable elastomeric respirators,2 which OSHA3 has previously recommended. This includes members of law enforcement, firefighters, EMS providers, industrial workers in utilities and critical infrastructure, and government personnel at all levels.4
Advantages for the Fire Service and EMS
The ability to clean, decontaminate, and reuse elastomeric respirators is a major advantage that allows a single mask to do the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of disposable N95s.6 Thanks to their reusability, elastomeric respirators require just a fraction of the storage space needed for N95 masks, resulting in cost savings. For example, in the healthcare industry, one hospital network7 saw a 95% decrease in its reliance on N95s during the current pandemic within one month of acquiring industrial elastomeric half-mask respirators paired with P100 filters.
Elastomeric half-mask respirators offer flexibility for use as filter cartridges are interchangeable. As a result, you can fit the same respirator with filters appropriate to a wide array of hazards and change out cartridges as needed.
Comfort and Fit
In the fire service, relying on gear and equipment that helps to protect you is paramount. Because of the materials they use and multiple sizes available, elastomeric half-mask respirators offer a comfortable, customizable fit while helping to keep you safe.
OSHA and the Canadian Standards Association require medical clearance and fit testing along with a written respiratory program from the employer.
Flexibility for the Future
Reusable respirators can be useful to firefighters and EMS providers beyond COVID-19. Supplementing your disposable N95 mask stockpile with reusable alternatives increases your flexibility as you plan and prepare for your emergency response to other public health emergencies, threats to national security, and natural disasters. Because reusable respirators allow for filter interchangeability, you can adapt your respirator by fitting it with a filter that is appropriate for the current situation and hazard.
Cleaning Your Reusable Respirator
If you’re in the fire services, you’re already used to cleaning your turnout gear. Reusable masks offer the same benefit of being able to be cleaned and relied on for reuse.
When cleaning your own device, follow recommended cleaning instructions for your respirator and the cleaning product itself including guidance on contact time and recommendations to wipe or rinse off product residue.8 Look for Environmental Protection Agency registered cleaning solutions as recommended by the CDC, which may include cleaning products from your respirator’s manufacturer. Always inspect your equipment after cleaning it. The CDC also offers guidance for disinfecting and reusing filter cartridges on an emergency basis during contingency and crisis emergency use.9
Baxter, Christina M. (Emergency Response TIPS), Stull Jeffery O. (International Personal Protection). The InterAgency Board for Emergency Preparedness Response. “Minimum Recommended Guidance on Protection and Decontamination for First Responders Involved in COVID-19 Cases – Detailed Reaction Guide.” https://www.ems.gov/pdf/
 United States Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/media/135763/download
 Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for an Influenza Pandemic.” https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3327pandemic.pdf
 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. Reusable Elastomeric Respirators in Health Care: Considerations for Routine and Surge Use. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25275
 Baxter, Christina M. (Emergency Response TIPS), Stull Jeffery O. (International Personal Protection). The InterAgency Board for Emergency Preparedness Response. “Minimum Recommended Guidance on Protection and Decontamination for First Responders Involved in COVID19 Cases – Quick Reaction Guide.” https://s16377.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/PPE-and-decon-recommnedations-for-COVID-19.pdf
 Luce, K. “They Evoke Darth Vader, but These Masks May Save Your Doctor’s Life.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/27/us/coronavirus-masks-elastomeric-respirators.html
 Chalikonda S, Waltenbaugh H, Angelilli S, Dumont T, Kvasager C, Sauber T, Servello N, Singh A, Diaz-Garcia R. “Implementation of an Elastomeric Mask Program as a Strategy to Eliminate Disposable N95 Mask Use and Resterilization: Results from a Large Academic Medical Center.” Journal of the American College of Surgeons (2020).doi: https://www.journalacs.org/article/S1072-7515(20)30471-3/pdf
 MSA Safety. “Product Cleaning Guidance: Respiratory Protection Equipment.” https://s7d9.scene7.com/is/content/minesafetyappliances/1000-91-MC%20Respiratory%20Cleaning%20Guidance%20Brief
United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Elastomeric Respirators: Strategies During Conventional and Surge Demands.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/elastomeric-respirators-strategy/index.html