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How to buy protective masks for the correctional environment

Buying the right protective face mask is key to ensuring officer safety

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Whether your team is suiting up for a cell extraction or preparing for a large disturbance in the yard, gas masks are an essential part of the team’s protective equipment.

This article outlines purchasing considerations for corrections agencies when procuring face masks for use of force or riot control. A lot of confusion exists about the different types of gas masks and filters. For that reason, always include a certified chemical munitions instructor and a representative from the safety department when making purchasing decisions.

Gas Mask or Air-purifying Respirators (APR)

Gas masks are also known as air-purifying respirators because they filter or clean chemical gases and possibly particles out of the air as you breathe.

This type of respirator includes a facepiece or mask, and a filter/cartridge (if the filter is in a metal shell it is referred to as a “canister”). Straps secure the facepiece to the head. The cartridge will either have a filter to remove particles (such as those released from a biological weapon), or charcoal (to remove certain chemicals). When the user inhales, air is pulled through the filter trapping the particles or chemicals.

For riot control or cell extraction team use, you will generally be looking for an air-purifying respirator. Most basic masks, when properly applied, will protect an officer from traditional crowd control chemical agents, some toxic chemicals and dust.

For correctional use ensure that you are ordering full-face APRs. Most irritants used in riot or crowd control also affect the eyes, so protecting your vision and your ability to see will keep you from becoming incapacitated.

Features of a good mask

When purchasing APRs for your agency, it is important to find one that:

  • Has a wide field of vision. This includes the ability to see peripherally and to be able to sight your weapon. A full-view face shield is preferable over two separate lenses.
  • Can be cleaned easily.
  • Provides a nose cup to prevent fogging.
  • Has at least the standard mechanized speaking diaphragm allowing communication. You can upgrade masks (especially for your team leaders) to include a voice amplifier allowing for clear communications even with crowd noise and the mask on.
  • Full face to protect eyes, nose and mouth from irritants and chemicals.

Filter types

Always ensure that you have the right filter for the right environment or scenario. Most new filters that have been manufactured in the past 5-10 years come with either an NBC/CBRN rating (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical, Radiation) or a CBA-RCA rating. The CBA-RCA rating stands for Chemical, Biological Agent-Riot Control Agent. These will not filter radiation but would withstand any specific hazardous chemical experienced in general prison and law enforcement scenarios.

Most filters also have a classification rating, such as P100. The first part of the filter’s classification uses the letters N, R, or P to indicate the filter’s ability to function when exposed to oils:

  • “N” means Not resistant to oil;
  • “R” means somewhat Resistant to oil; and
  • “P” means strongly resistant to oil, or oil-Proof.

This rating is mainly for industrial settings where oils may be present because some oils can reduce the effectiveness of the filter.

The second part of the classification – the number – refers to the filter’s ability to remove the most-penetrating particle size during “worst-case” testing. Filters that remove at least 95% of these particles are given a 95 rating. Those that filter out at least 99% receive a 99 rating, and those that filter out at least 99.97% – essentially 100% – receive a 100 rating.

Using this classification method, an N95 filter is not resistant to oil and removes at least 95% of the most penetrating particles. Filters rated CBA-RCA should have a P100 rating. They will be oil proof and filter 99.97% of particles in the air.

Filters used operationally should be discarded afterward. Stored filters left in their original packaging should have a shelf life of 5-15 years, but always check the manufacturer’s recommendations.


Regular training with the APR should be required of all employees who will be expected to doff (take off) or don (put on) a mask during an emergency. The training should be interactive, hands-on, and show officers the proper way to get a good seal in an emergency without trapping irritants and chemicals inside the facepiece.

Finding the proper size ahead of time for each staff member and having officers learn how to adjust the harness will also prevent problems during a crisis.

Training allows time for staff to become comfortable with the APR and provides a chance to wear the mask and feel the breathing resistance they will experience. It is also a good time to answer questions such as:

  • Will I be able to talk and hear while wearing the mask?
  • Does the mask restrict my vision or head movement in any way?
  • Can I use a filter more than one time?

One final important reason for training is claustrophobia. Some officers have no idea they are claustrophobic until they put their mask on. An officer who is claustrophobic may panic and rip that mask off and begin gasping for air. It is better to discover this in training than in the real world.

Medically Pre-Cleared and Fit Tested

Wearing an APR mask under stress makes everything an officer does more difficult. If an officer has a pre-existing health issue, just the act of wearing a mask can be dangerous to them. Every officer should be medically cleared for mask use.

Before an officer goes into harm’s way with his or her mask, that officer needs to make certain the mask they are issued fits and that they can get a good seal. After they have been trained in the application of their mask, an officer should undergo fit testing.

Your safety department or the local fire department has certified fit testers. However, if you have tactical and disturbance-control units, it would stand to reason you should have an in-house person to conduct the fit tests, as well as the equipment to do the testing.

Respirator fit tests are either qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative is a pass/fail test that uses the sense of taste/smell, or reaction to irritant to detect leaks. Quantitative uses a machine to measure the actual amount of leakage into the facepiece.

Compatible with Other Gear

Before finalizing a purchase, it is important to ascertain that the masks you have selected are compatible with the protective helmets you purchase. Helmets and masks need to be functional together. Don’t make this common error or you will discover you have made your recently purchased helmet and masks immediately obsolete. Also, ensure that the extra filters you purchase will fit the APRs you have. Although most filters are threaded with the NATO 40mm, there are still some that do not.


Buying the appropriate respirators and filters for your staff, combined with interactive training that makes staff comfortable with their use, will make everyone breathe easier when the next emergency happens.

NEXT: How to buy less lethal products (eBook)

Host of The Prison Officer Podcast, Mike Cantrell has been in corrections for over 28 years. He has recently retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons as the Chief of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. He is a firearms, less lethal, breaching and disturbance control instructor and has led special response, disturbance control and canine teams over his career.

He is a correctional consultant specializing in the use of force and physical security. He is a writer, content creator and speaker on leadership and crisis management.