Face masks, once rarely used by public safety providers during patient or suspect contact, are now required throughout an entire shift for many police officers, firefighters, corrections officers, EMTs and paramedics. If a face mask isn’t a department requirement it is highly recommended in daily operations, regardless of assignment or location, to reduce the risk of asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic COVID-19 transmission.
Public safety employers continue to struggle to obtain an adequate supply of PPE, including N95 masks for EMTs and paramedics or face masks, often known as surgical masks or dust masks. Until a vaccine is available it is likely a face mask will be standard issue kit for public safety personnel.
Unfortunately, during the ongoing PPE shortage unscrupulous manufacturers and distributors have sold defective or mislabeled masks. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has made arrests and seized hundreds of shipments of counterfeit masks, gloves, gowns and other supplies. In West Virginia, 50,000 masks labeled as N95 were distributed to public safety. Even after learning the masks didn’t meet NIOSH standards, the devices were left in use, potentially putting personnel at risk. In Massachusetts, KN95 masks, the Chinese equivalent of N95, were distributed to law enforcement agencies across the state. Several of the masks tested by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers significantly underperformed. One type of mask filtered only 28.1% of airborne particles and another just more than half of particles.
In addition, well-intentioned citizens have donated homemade cloth face masks to departments and many entrepreneurial vendors are standing up operations for screen printed masks. Masks printed with the “thin blue line” flag were banned by the San Francisco Police Chief after officers were photographed wearing the masks at a May Day parade.
If departments mandate wearing a face mask as an essential component of duty gear, departments must provide masks that meet regulatory standards for design and performance. If the department is unable to procure face masks for personnel, there must be a policy in place for accepting donations and setting standards for DIY PPE.
Here are seven considerations for purchasing face masks or allowing the use of donated face masks.
1. Masks must meet minimum regulatory standards
An N95 mask must filter at least 95% of airborne particles and is constructed with head straps, not ear loops. Other face mask types must conform to industry and regulatory standards.
Standards for cloth face masks, either made by a textile manufacturer, an individual public safety provider for their use, or a concerned neighbor, are mostly based on DIY videos and best intentions. At the minimum, a cloth mask needs to cover the mouth and nose, stay in place with normal movements, be adjustable to head shape and size, and minimize obstruction of vision for the wearer.
2. Design, material and manufacturing matter
A cloth face mask is only as good as the materials from which it is made. A homemade mask might work for a civilian’s weekly outing to the grocery store but might not handle the challenges of continuous use over a 10- or 12-hour shift.
Donated DIY cloth face masks to a department should be a temporary solution until the department can secure a reliable supply chain of disposable masks or purchase reusable masks with the same durability and functionality of other department-required duty gear.
3. Select colors or design that match other duty gear
Manufactured, disposable masks are often white, pale blue, or other neutral colors. Options are sure to become available to screen print disposable masks with words, logos, or images. It seems unnecessary and a potential security risk to have a disposable mask with the department logo or ear-to-ear block lettering of “SWAT” or “FIRE.”
For most public safety personnel, a cloth mask that is blue, black, or other neutral color is likely the best choice. Be clear with personnel if your department will accept donated masks or allow personnel to wear masks that have logos or screen printings of some kind.
4. Multiple masks may be necessary
If the department expects personnel to wear a cloth face mask throughout their shift, employees may need multiple masks. If the availability of disposable masks is limited during a shift, making it easy for personnel to obtain a replacement from a supervisor, company officer, or quartermaster.
5. Wash cloth masks regularly
Cloth masks, like any new clothing worn by an officer, firefighter, EMT, or paramedic, should be washed before use and then washed with other uniform components after each shift. If a cloth face mask, like other uniform components, is splashed or stained with blood or other potentially infectious material (OPIM) carefully remove the mask while wearing gloves and launder it with other uniform components.
6. Replace cloth masks
Consider replacing a cloth mask if it is stained with blood, OPIM, food, or saliva. Also replace a cloth mask, just like you would with uniform pants, if the color fades, stitching comes undone or components fail, like the straps separating from the mask. Also, replace cloth face masks for department personnel if a better solution becomes available.
7. Special considerations for donated masks
Many businesses and concerned citizens have offered dust masks, N95 masks and other types of face masks to public safety and healthcare providers. An anonymous donor left 160 N95 masks on a fire engine while the crew was grocery shopping. The department had already received other masks and hand sanitizer donations.
Optimally, a local emergency operations center has planned for and operationalized a way to receive and process donations. It is preferable that donated PPE be in its original packaging and not expired. Check out-of-the-box donations for visible wear-and-tear, stains, other damage, or anything suspicious that might disqualify the item from use.
Any clothing, uniform, or face mask donation to a public safety department that either seems too good to be true or suspicious should be carefully assessed and only accepted after vetting the donor and their intent.
Consider using a form or intake process to document donations and donors for later reporting.
Finally, a cloth mask is a complement to, rather than a replacement of, other infection control measures. All personnel should have access to eye protection, regularly wash their hands, catch their cough or sneeze in their elbow or tissue, and stay home from work if sick. Public safety organizations should have screening and testing processes in place for personnel who report COVID-19 symptoms or exposure.