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Joint-Service Team Develops New Protective Mask

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md., Sept. 9, 1999 – It will be the lightest, most comfortable protective mask service members have ever used, Army Col. Steven V. Reeves said.

Reeves, project manager for nuclear, biological and chemical defense systems, said the Joint Service General Purpose Mask will replace five different masks used by soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

Impetus for the new mask was the Gulf War. "We set up a repair facility and we had soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines bringing us seven different types of masks," said Rick Decker, mask project team leader. "We had a heck of a job trying to establish the logistics trail, getting the spare parts for each mask."

Military officials said the services experience the same type of environment, so there really was no need for each service to develop its own mask. The joint-service mask, being developed at the Army's Soldier and Biological Chemical Command here, will protect wearers from battlefield concentrations of chemical and biological agents and toxic industrial chemicals. The services will buy 3.5 million masks.

Reeves said joint-service officials sought to make the mask more comfortable. It's lighter than the current M-40 mask and easier to see through than previous masks.

"Unlike some prior masks that had binocular eyepieces, the joint-service mask has a single eyepiece," Reeves said. "This gives the service member much greater field of view. We're testing this vision piece to ensure it will interface with night vision equipment, any weapon-sighting systems, as well as individual weapons."

He said the filter technology is probably the biggest and most radical change advancement. One team objective is to reduce breathing resistance by half, he said. This means it won't be so tiring to use because it will take less work to breath.

"There is a counterpoint," Reeves said. Joint forces operating in urban environments could be exposed to toxic industrial chemicals, he noted. The traditional mask protection in such arenas is to use denser filters, which makes it harder for wearers to breathe. He said the team is committed to creating an extra-strength filter with no breathing penalty.

The M-40 series of masks used today by the Army and the Marine Corps is the best in the world. Reeves said. It protects users against current battlefield chemical and biological threats, but not industrial chemicals, he noted. Another drawback, he said, is the NATO standard filter canister that be mounted to either side of the mouth. The new mask integrates the filters back into the mask, Reeves said.

Other aspects joint service planners are designing into the mask will make it easier to maintain. "One unique aspect of the filter is something we're calling the 'service-life indicator,'" Reeves said. "We're going to embed a small color patch in the mask filter -- green will mean the filter is ready to go; red means you need to replace the filter." The planners got the idea from similar indicators used on toothbrushes.

Another idea is to color-code parts inside the mask that need maintenance. "We're making the valves blue. That'll make it easier for service members and those maintaining the mask," Decker said. "[The valves] don't have to be black or green; we're not camouflaging the inside of the mask." The one-piece design makes the mask easy to clean, he added.

Reeves said the team hopes to hold the cost to $50 per mask. At that low price, the mask is virtually disposable if it becomes unserviceable, he said.

Designers are testing the mask with soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Decker said tests are planned aboard an Aegis cruiser; at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.; during an Marine Corps amphibious exercise at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; and at Fort Polk, La.

Finally, there is the new issue of homeland defense. The mask design is intended to be certified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health, Reeves said.

"So as we start looking at the terrorist threat around the United States, we also had to have a mask that first responders -- police departments and fire departments -- could also use," he said. "Many states and counties require OSHA and NIOSH certification for lifesaving apparatus."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA soldier models the Joint Service General purpose mask. Photo by Jim Garamone.   
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