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How to buy protective masks for crowd control

Having access to protective face masks is key to ensuring officer safety


AP Photo/Morry Gash, File

The current environment of protests and riots has led to many officers being injured while engaged in crowd control. Having access to protective face masks is key to ensuring officer safety. This article outlines purchasing considerations for LE agencies when procuring face masks for crowd control.

Know the mission and purchase with a purpose

There is such a variety of masks on the market, it is important to know what the mission of your mask users will be.

If you are specifically buying for crowd control purposes, that will limit your search considerably.

It is important to have the person assigned to the search for purchase be familiar because of training, or experience, with the needs of officers during a civil disturbance. Ideally, this person should be a trained grenadier with a chemical munition trainer certification.

Features of a good mask

When engaged in the search for the perfect mask, it is important to find one that:

  1. Protects the eyes, nose, mouth and throat from irritants commonly found in the air at a civil disturbance.
  2. Has a wide field of vision. This includes the ability to see peripherally and to be able to sight your weapon.
  3. Allows for fast application and removal without hair, tangling and pulling.
  4. Provides a nose cup to prevent fogging.
  5. Has at least the standard mechanized speaking diaphragm allowing communication. You can upgrade masks (especially for your on-street commanders and tactical operators) to include a communication system allowing for clear communications even with the mask on.
  6. Has an extra replacement canister.
  7. Has a peel off and replaceable seal protecting the visor.

APR (Air Purifying Respirator)

For crowd control 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, including radioactive dust. There are two major categories for these masks for your consideration.

1. The conventional negative pressure air purifying system

The negative pressure air-purifying respirator requires the officer who is wearing the mask to do the work of drawing air through the canister(s) for breathing. For mass purchases, this system is more cost-effective and easier to maintain.

2. The positive pressure or powered air purifying system

The powered air-purifying mask system uses a motor and battery to draw air through the canister into the mask for the user to breathe. Officers who are going into a tough environment for long periods will find this system less fatiguing than the negative pressure air purifying system.

Both of these systems will protect officers when they have properly applied the mask in a crowd control environment.


There are also more complex protection systems that are available for use in jail settings in the event of a fire and use by officers investigating the scene of a meth lab. These are the closed-circuit breathing apparatus (CCBA) and the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). They are also referred to as a compressed air breathing apparatus. These systems are used when the environment a person is operating in is immediately dangerous to life.

These are not systems that you would use in a crowd control situation, but it is imperative to note that an air-purifying respirator mask can’t protect an officer in an environment where one would need a CCBA or an SCBA. This is a critical point to make in training.

Medically Pre-Cleared for Use

Agencies often overlook pre-use safety requirements necessary before mask use. Simply put, officers issued masks for use should be medically cleared to be able to use the masks. 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.

Mask Fit-Tested

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. After they have been trained in the application of their mask, an officer should undergo fit testing.

Fire departments have certified fit-testers and often arrangements are made between local departments for the fire department personnel to initially perform this task for the police department. However, if you have tactical and crowd-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.

Quickly explained, the officer will have a seat and apply his/her mask. The tester will put a special hood over them creating an artificial environment and introduce a scented spray into the hood. If the officer can’t detect the fragrance that means the mask is fitted properly to them.


One important reason to train before use of the issued mask is that some officers have no idea they are claustrophobic until they put their mask on. An officer who is claustrophobic may rip that mask off and begin gasping for air. It is better to discover this in training than in the real world. This might disqualify the officer for team membership, however, sometimes transitioning from a negative pressure APR mask to a positive pressure APR mask can make the difference.

Regardless it will serve your department well to have both types of masks available.

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.


If you approach this important purchase in an informed manner you will find that thanks to your efforts, your officers will breathe easier because of you.

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Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.