Community Project Helping FD Maintain Mask Supply During COVID-19 Pandemic

As cases of COVID-19 continue to spread across the state of South Carolina and the nation, one critical goal on the minds of first responders is maintaining proper supplies of protective equipment.

While the Columbia-Richland Fire Department continues to have supplies of masks, gloves and other items to protect firefighters in stock – department leaders have been carefully looking at one way to maximize the life of these products. That research and collaboration has now led to the department acquiring multiple devices that can decontaminate medical response equipment using ultraviolet light.

A demonstration of the equipment was conducted at CRFD Station 3 on Thursday April 30, 2020. 

“It really is a fascinating way to ensure that each mask is used for as long as it safely can be,” said Columbia-Richland Fire Chief Aubrey D. Jenkins, “Going forward we’re going to look at every opportunity to save a mask using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI). I applaud our community partners who have worked tirelessly to develop these devices to help keep our firefighters safe in the line of duty.”

Several past studies and scientific research have shown that types of ultraviolet radiation have the power to inactivate a wide range of human pathogens, including coronavirus and other human respiratory viruses. Similar projects aimed at using UVGI to decontaminate items have been launched by fire departments and public safety agencies across the country.

The Columbia-Richland Fire Department’s UVGI devices were developed and tested by a small group of private citizens led by physical therapist Rich Wachtel and Chris Yenkey, a professor of International Business at the University of South Carolina. Readings of ultraviolet radiation on the machines were verified by faculty from the Electrical Engineering Department’s Photonics and Microelectronics Laboratory at USC using specialized equipment. University staff also assisted CRFD in developing protocols for use of the devices. Officials with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC) also provided consultation.

Resembling a small cabinet, each UVGI devices is outfitted with lights capable of producing UV-C radiation. Over the course of several days the fire department developed guidelines for staff to turn in masks for decontamination. 

After being suspended in the UVGI machines on a rack and exposed to the lights for a period of several minutes, the masks are then considered clean and can be sent back to their individual staff members for continued use. Three machines have been outfitted in a trailer to facilitate the decontamination process. Over a period of a few hours hundreds of masks can be decontaminated using the system.

This process will only be used for masks that HAVE NOT been directly contacted by discharges of a possible COVID-19 patient. Those masks will be discarded and immediately replaced. All fire department personnel are also wearing face shields while on medical calls to add an extra layer of protection and reduce the chance of COVID-19 exposure.

The Columbia-Richland Fire Department extends its deepest thanks to its partners at the University of South Carolina, SC DHEC and the community at large for their work on this project.

For more information on the UV devices and the collaboration that has gone into their development, click here.