New gear to aid military forces

Aberdeen lab develops protective mask that cuts costs, improves visibility

January 04, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Within the next two years, the military plans to field its first protective mask for use by all branches of the service - and civilian emergency workers. Most of the work on the $350 million project has been done at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

In the mid-1990s, the military tapped three researchers at APG's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center - the Defense Department's lead lab program for nonmedical chemical and biological defense study - to develop a joint-use mask that would improve upon several key features, such as comfort and visibility, but also lower production cost.

"They wanted to really improve, making a significant jump over what they had," said ECBC chemical engineer William M. Fritch Jr. of Bel Air, who was the lead designer on the project. "We didn't have to rush this."

The military expects to spend about $350 million for research, development, testing and procurement of the new mask line, according to ECBC spokeswoman Joan Michel.

Until the development of the joint-service general-purpose mask, or JSPGM, more than half a dozen mask programs were working independently within the Department of Defense, Fritch said.

The resulting JSPGM, which will come in three sizes and cost about $100, improves visibility, fit and durability, according to ECBC. Tests of the mask compared with the current M40 series have shown many improvements exceeding 100 percent, especially in its protectiveness and field of view, according to data from ECBC.

The cost is roughly half that of currently produced masks, Fritch said.

Better vision and communication abilities were the key improvements, Fritch said.

"This is really the first mask where we've been able to ... make it easier for the [military personnel] to perform missions," he said.

Bringing together the needs of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen wasn't easy because of their range of assignments and equipment, said fellow engineer Corey M. Grove of Red Lion, Pa. He is the project's lead researcher, and he began work in 1995 on the joint-use mask.

Three years of field trials were performed, Grove said. "It has to work," he said of the mask, "or somebody's going to die."

Computer modeling allowed Stephen E. Chase of Jarrettsville, the engineering technician on the project, to create rapid prototypes of mask concepts. Before modeling, each prototype had to be sculpted, which took four to five months, to study even the smallest changes, Chase said.

Last month, the three men were honored - along with more than a dozen other scientists, researchers and engineers at ECBC - for their work on chemical-biological defense projects. Other innovations included mobile biological agent monitoring systems and labs, as well as improved biological agent sampling kits.

"The mask has always been associated with Edgewood. All of the masks the military has had have been developed in part here," said Richard W. Decker, deputy to the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical/Biological Defense. The office was formed last year to oversee protection of all branches of the armed services from battlefield chemical and biological weapons.

Decker worked on the mask project at ECBC before joining the joint program last year. He said that the joint-use mask would also be the first to meet federal standards for civilian emergency workers, an effort sparked by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"There were so many different types of equipment on the scene that were not interchangeable," Decker said.

The military expects to order about 3 million of the masks over the next few years, he said, and demand in the commercial market has been estimated at 10 times that.

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