ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- An ill-fitting chemical-biological protective mask could expose Soldiers to potentially lethal hazards during combat.

For Soldiers who cannot find a proper fit with a standard-issue mask, Cindy Learn and her colleagues are working to avoid any gaps in protection. Learn, a system engineer with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, says her goal is to ensure users are safe from chemical, biological and radioactive particulate threats.

'NO WARFIGHTER LEFT BEHIND'

"I like to call it 'No Warfighter left behind.' We make sure every Warfighter has a mask to use when they go to theater," said Learn, who works on the mask program for RDECOM's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, supporting the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense. "They are protected so they can protect us."

The Hard-to-Fit Program accommodates members of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as Department of Defense civilians who are required to wear masks for their jobs.

"A Warfighter cannot be deployed without a mask that fits properly and securely to the face," said Learn, who has been an Army civilian for six years. "There are infinite different shapes and sizes of faces, and having a protective mask that fits well is essential to any deployable mission.

"Not being able to get your hands on the right fitting mask could be a career ender for some."

FINDING A PROPER MASK FIT

Currently fielded mask styles, including the M40 series and M45, are designed to fit 95 percent of head sizes. Newer masks, including the Joint Service General Purpose Mask (M50) and M53 series, are designed to fit 98 percent.

The program, which is part of ECBC's Protection Engineering Division, fit 100 people in 2011 and has fit 38 in 2012 as of Aug. 23. Most requests come from the Army's chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological defense school at Fort Dix, N.J., and chemical school at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

The Army uses the M45 as the hard-to-fit mask solution, Learn said. It comes in four mask sizes and five nose-cup sizes, which are interchangeable. Most other standard-issue masks have only three sizes with a fixed nosecup. Interchangeable nosecups allow for a more custom fit.

The Hard-to-Fit Program does not redesign a new mask for those who do not fit in the standard version. The group alters a mask to fit a person's face by mixing and matching parts.

"If someone decides they need a hard-to-fit mask, they will contact us and tell us what mask they were best able to achieve a fit with, although they couldn't get a passing fit," Learn said. "That gives us a good idea about what size they would be in the M45. Sometimes they are extremely hard-to-fit, and they will travel to ECBC's mask issue, where I will meet them and work with the fitting facility to make sure they can achieve a proper fit."

The program began in the late 1970s, when engineers would make someone a custom mask, which had significantly higher costs as well as time.

SERVICE FOR SOLDIERS' EQUIPMENT NEEDS

Learn said an important part of her work is to communicate with users and provide solutions to their issues and questions regarding chemical, biological, and radiological protective equipment. Her group works in the sustainment part of the equipment life cycle and is responsible for managing the items after they have been fielded.

Servicemembers can request parts information and make recommendations to the engineers for improving equipment. The Protection Engineering Division also performs extensive testing of parts to ensure products fulfill user needs and expectations, she said.

"Our masks are designed to protect against all chemical and biological agents that are currently a threat. We do a lot of agent testing here at Edgewood with other branches," Learn said. "We supply the canister, and we give them a test plan with what agents and challenges they need to test against to make sure our materials are up to par."

PROTECTION FOR GROUND VEHICLES

In addition to her role with the Protection Engineering Division, Learn began working a few months ago with the Program Manager of Ground Mobile Platform CBRN Survivability. The organization provides CBRN survivability expertise for all major Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps ground-vehicle programs to allow them to meet the CBRN survivability mission requirements.

For the service's ground vehicles, the incorporation of CBRN sensors, CBRN filtration systems, CBRN individual protection and decontamination systems need to be addressed.

"We make sure that if there's a CBRN need in the vehicle, they know what kind of equipment is available for them," she said. "We give them lots of information -- the weight of products, the function of products, and where to order to them. We are the CBRN point of contact between the joint program managers within the JPEO-CBD for all ground mobile systems.

"We provide a set of tailored services to a major defense acquisition program at all stages of development."

Learn said this new role will expand her focus and allow her to learn about all aspects of CBRN protection.

'I'VE BROUGHT IT TO THE FOREFRONT'

Learn, who earned a bachelor of science in chemical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2004, said her greatest success as an Army engineer is revitalizing the Hard-to-Fit Program. Her involvement in the process has brought greater organization, ease of use, and quicker service, said Jim Church, Learn's supervisor and branch chief of the Joint Service Physical Protection Engineering Branch.

"[The program] existed before I got here, but I feel like I've brought it to the forefront. I've produced articles on the program and tried to tighten the circles to make sure everybody understands what the program can do for them," she said.

Page last updated Wed September 5th, 2012 at 12:17