Firefighter masks repurposed to boost ventilator capacity

Special to Western News

A Western-developed prototype to help treat patients with COVID-19 uses a modified firefighter’s mask with a gasket and 3D-printed parts to create two tight seals – one around the patient’s nose and mouth and another around the face.

A Western-led team of researchers and engineers has developed a new way to modify a firefighter’s facemask in order to help treat patients with COVID-19.

In light of a continuing global concern about the shortage of ventilators, the team came up with a prototype that uses this protective gear meant for firefighters in order to modify existing non-invasive ventilators to make them safe to use for COVID-19 patients.

Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Dr. Tarek Loubani has been working with researchers at University Health Network (UHN) and industrial design engineers at General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada to develop the prototype.

COVID-19 is primarily spread through inhalation of respiratory droplets and the most severely ill patients require a ventilator to help them breathe. Non-invasive ventilators don’t require intubation. Instead, they provide pressurized oxygen to the patient through continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machines.

Loubani says these ventilators aren’t currently being used because they pose a risk of spreading the virus to others in near proximity.

“We have lots of non-invasive ventilators in hospitals, but we aren’t using them right now because they don’t have a tight seal, so they have the potential to spew the virus,” said Loubani, a Lawson Health Research Institute scientist and emergency room physician at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC). “COVID-19 is unique because it attacks both the upper and lower parts of the respiratory tract; it’s contagious like a cold and deadly like pneumonia. That combination is what is causing so many problems.”

The prototype uses a modified firefighter’s mask with a gasket and 3D-printed parts to create two tight seals – one around the patient’s nose and mouth and another around the face. Patients breathe in and out of a filter that captures any viral particles before they are released to the air. It can be used with any non-invasive ventilators in order to keep the virus contained.

All the parts are designed to be taken apart, sanitized and reused.

The plan is to test the prototype on patients at LHSC’s Victoria Hospital and University Hospital, with plans to expand to the University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto.

If it proves to be effective, the hope is to make the design open-source so any hospital around the globe with access to a 3D printer and firefighter masks could create them. With help from General Dynamics, the team also plans to create a kit that would include all of the parts to modify the ventilators.

Loubani is grateful to LHSC and General Dynamics for collaborating so swiftly to make this idea a reality.

“Just over a month ago, this was only an idea. Now, we have a working prototype,” he said of the Glia-funded initiative. “COVID-19 came like a tsunami. This project was like building a speed boat while we were watching that tsunami bear down on us.”