REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. — Not many Soldiers know about the Protection Assessment Test System laboratory, located in a nondescript building in the back of Redstone Arsenal, but they all benefit from its services.
The PATS lab, which is part of the U.S. Army Test, Measurement, and Diagnostic Equipment Activity, is responsible for ensuring every gas mask tester in the Department of Defense functions appropriately. Lab technicians calibrate these machines, which are used to test gas masks for leaks prior to deployments or field exercises for units from every branch in the military.
Nearly every American warfighter around world will check the fit their gas mask on a unit that was serviced by the PATS lab.
“This laboratory focuses on counting vapor droplets,” said Robert Branin, USATA deputy director for management and operations. “We manage the science of measuring droplet particles down to the parts per million that you can’t see with your eye because, in the case of the tester, we want to make sure that it can measure particulates that might get into the Soldier’s gas mask.”
PATS lab Team Lead Travis Robbins said each tester services a battalion-sized unit or larger and should be calibrated approximately every eighteen months to ensure accuracy.
When testers arrive for calibration, a PATS technician performs an “as-found” test to determine functionality. After repairs, each tester is certified for accuracy on a machine using a special aerosol to test for leaks.
“When you wear a gas mask, it seals around the skin,” Robbins said. “The whole point is a skin seal. If you have a leak, we can measure that because the PATS unit is going to pull a vacuum on the mask and see the outside particle count versus the inside particle count, and we’ll see how well it does at preventing leaks.”
Robbins said the challenge aerosol does not represent a specific agent. Rather, it is an emery oil aerosol that is refined for perfectly uniform particles, allowing technicians to measure each particulate count accurately.
“The as-found test takes about 10 minutes,” said Caleb Baker, an engineering intern from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “It’s a preliminary test. Then we repair and calibrate; the repair process takes about two hours, but it can take up to six or eight hours, depending how broken it is when it shows up.”
Robbins said the turnaround time for repairing and certifying a tester is 30 to 50 days — from the time it arrives at the PATS lab to the time it is packed and reshipped back to the unit. However, he said they can complete the process in a day if needed.
“We prioritize deployments or testers that break in theater,” Robbins said. “In those cases, we’ll turn it around the same day. Usually units have a backup but, if it does break, it tends to be something of an emergency.”
The turnaround time can be compressed and adjusted based on need but, regardless of the timeframe, the quality remains the same.
“Our machine puts out particles,” Baker said. “The tester will count the particles and the machine will generate a report to show the percent difference between what was put out and what was detected. We are shooting for a difference of under 10%; that is our standard.”
Robbins said the standard for the DoD is 15% and it is 20% for industry but, due to the austere environments in which the Army uses gas masks, his team strives for better than the standard.
The PATS lab continued operations throughout the recent USATA building renovation and it was the first lab to relocate to a space custom-built for their mission. Robbins said their customer is the warfighter, so they could not afford to slow down or stop.
“We worked continually throughout the construction phase,” Robbins said. “Our doors were sealed at one point because of the outside dust and contamination that came in, but we worked around the construction and used a back entrance because these testers are direct Army support, so we never stopped.”