Gas Masks for Troopers

The Buffalo News printed an article on March 3 about the gas masks used by State Police members. The newspaper article is listed below, as is a link to the newspaper’s web site.

Keeping troopers safe

State Police await new gas masks certified for terrorists’ poisons to replace ones bought in 2002

News Staff Reporter

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Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News
State Trooper Art Couchman, senior fire inspector, shows off the air mask that complies with post 9/11 standards. He handles testing of and training for use of the mask.

State troopers have been carrying gas masks for the past two years that the federal government failed to approve for use against terrorists’ poison or even tear gas. The masks cost New York State $1 million when they were purchased shortly after 9/11.

Now the state has ordered 4,500 new masks from a different company to replace them, said Dennis Michalski, a spokesman for the state Office of Homeland Security.

The replacement masks will cost $1.6 million.

"Right now, the (uncertified) masks are still out in the field," Michalski said. "We have ordered new, certified masks. We’re waiting for delivery. As soon as they come in, they’re going right out to the troopers, and the other masks will come back in."

Michalski said he did not know when the replacement masks will arrive. The older masks will be stored until state officials decide what to do with them, he said.

North Carolina, which also equipped its law enforcement officers with the uncertified model, recently began taking 2,400 masks back from the officers, even before replacements could be given to all of them.

None of the uncertified masks has been used in an emergency response in New York State, Michalski said.

The manufacturer of the older masks, Safety Equipment Australia, said its masks are safe to use.

"There’s nothing wrong with the masks they have. This gives them very good protection. It’s not unsafe," said Bengt Kjellberg, president of the company’s American subsidiary.

"This mask has been sold all over the world. It’s not something somebody built in the basement," Kjellberg said. "This is a very good mask."

When the state ordered the older masks, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government had not established a gas mask standard for lethal compounds such as the nerve gas Sarin or anthrax.

Other models from the company had been certified by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for tear gas and other irritants.

But the gas masks purchased by the state are different. The filter is attached to the side of the mask – not the front – giving troopers better vision if they have to fire a weapon while wearing the mask.

The federal government has previously approved the company’s gas mask components for tear gas, but the approval came with the filter attached to the front of the mask, Kjellberg said.

Moving the filter to the side meant the gas mask lost certification for tear gas.

"Now, we have to submit the mask where you screw the filter into the side," Kjellberg said.

Certification expected

The mask with the side filter should be certified for tear gas by March 14, he said. The certification would have come by now if the federal testing agency hadn’t lost a check the company sent to cover testing costs, he said.

Last May, however, the company told North Carolina officials that it was withdrawing its request that the federal government certify its mask for protection against poisons that terrorists could use, such as nerve gas or anthrax, according to the News & Observer, the Raleigh, N.C., newspaper that first reported the company’s lack of certification for the side-loaded filter.

The company will seek that certification after winning approval for tear gas first, Kjellberg told The Buffalo News.

New York State went through a review process before buying the masks, said Michalski, the state’s homeland security spokesman.

About 10 companies approached the state with their models in 2002. "We had all of our experts take a look at these, and Safety Equipment Australia came up with what we believed to be the best mask available at that time," Michalski said.

State Police officials declined to comment on the gas masks and referred questions to the Office of Homeland Security, the agency that selected the Safety Equipment Australia mask.

State Police Sgt. Phil Bache told the News & Observer that New York State made "an educated guess" when selecting the Safety Equipment Australia masks.

"This was an educated guess that at that point appeared to be a good, cost-efficient solution," said Bache, the State Police’s health and safety officer. "And it just so happened that we got bit on it."

"This was the best equipment," Michalski said. "We were not trying to do this on the cheap. Our first concern was for our first responders."

Old masks still in use

The state began the process of buying replacement gas masks last spring, Michalski said.

State officials began talking with other manufacturers "as soon as we knew we wanted certified masks" for terrorism-level poisons, Michalski said.

After "a lengthy, involved process," the state selected a certified model manufactured by Mine Safety Appliances of Pittsburgh, Michalski said.

Until the new models arrive, state troopers continue to carry the uncertified models, he said.

North Carolina instructed its officers to only use the Safety Equipment Australia masks to escape a dangerous situation, not to enter into one, the News & Observer reported.

New York officials will not publicly disclose their instructions to troopers regarding the uncertified masks.

"I don’t want to get into protocol for security reasons," Michalski said. "They’ve received proper instructions and top-notch training. They know what to do in all events."

Click here for a link to the newspaper article in The Buffalo News