VNG state safety office helps Soldiers train for mask fit missions

Virginia National Guard Soldiers learn how to perform N95 respirator mask fit tests during a training session May 13, 2020, at the Petersburg Readiness Center in Petersburg, Virginia. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

PETERSBURG, Va. — As part of Virginia National Guard’s ongoing COVID-19 response operations, VNG Soldiers are performing N95 mask fit testings at long term care and other facilities across the Commonwealth. Before the Soldiers can perform these missions, they’re getting hands on training courtesy of the VNG state safety office. 

Chief Warrant Officer 5 William Lyles, the VNG state safety officer and Rebecca Moses, the state safety and compliance specialist for the Virginia Department of Military Affairs, are working together to train hundreds of VNG Soldiers to perform the mask fit tests. The Soldiers will take that training with them as they are called on to perform mask fit testing missions at various facilities as determined by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. 

While it looks like a simple device to wear, the N95 respirators must be fitted and tested following a strict protocol to ensure that they’ll help keep the wearer, including long term care facility employees, safe from the virus. 

After a period of classroom learning, Soldiers get an opportunity for hands-on training, including being properly fitted for their own mask, a vital step in the process, Lyles said during a recent training session at the Petersburg Readiness Center in Petersburg, Virginia. 

“Before we send them out to do any testing in the community, we want to make sure they understand the Guard’s program, because we do have a program for fit testing and for wearing these types of masks,” said Lyles. “They need to be properly fit tested before we get them to go out and fit test other people. We want to make sure they know the policies, the regulations, then we want to give them oral instructions, and then hands on. Most people are really going to pick it up hands on.”

The class was led by Chief Warrant Officer 5 William Lyles, the VNG state safety officer, and Rebecca Moses, the state safety and compliance specialist for the Virginia Department of Military Affairs. (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

During the fit tests, the person being tested places a special hood over their head, and the fit tester sprays a strong tasting solution inside until the subject can taste it. The subject then dons their mask and performs a series of head and body movements as well as a speaking test while more solution is sprayed into the hood. If the mask is fitted properly, the subject will no longer sense the harsh solution. 

Lyles said trusting your mask is of utmost importance. 

“We spray something in there, and you realize it doesn’t taste very good, then you put the mask on and now you trust it, because nothing is getting into the mask,” said Lyles. “In theory, we want them to have confidence in the mask and confidence in their testing, so when they go out, they exude confidence to the people they’re testing.”

Before the testing begins, Soldiers will also have to ensure those being tested complete a medical screening to ensure they’re healthy enough to wear a mask without causing respiratory or other complications. Lyles and Moses make sure that part of the process is covered as well.

“Many people don’t necessarily know that you have to actually be fitted to wear the N95 and that there is a medical clearance aspect as well for workforce usage,” said Moses. “During the training, we break the standard down, so that staff can understand the components, and we move step by step through the process and evaluate each person to ensure that they completely understand how the process works.” 

“We’ll do the complete cycle here just like they would out on a mission,” said Lyles. “The only difference is on a mission, the OIC and the NCOIC will probably do all of the administrative stuff, but we want everyone to know the process just in case.”

Moses said every detail matters when conducting the mask fit test training. 

“During the training, the soldiers saw that appropriate mask size was imperative and that that face shape and size, among other things, could certainly impact the fitting of the mask,” said Moses. “Chief Lyles and I are always happy to support our workforce to ensure their safety and assist them in understanding safety components.”

VNG Soldiers and Airmen have completed more than 1,000 mask fit tests for employees at long term care and other facilities during COVID-19 response operations. Localities looking for VNG support should contact VDEM and make a request. Read more about the VNG’s statewide response at https://go.usa.gov/xvQgp (U.S. National Guard photo by Mike Vrabel)

To date, VNG Soldiers and Airmen have conducted more than 1,000 mask fit testings across Virginia. Ultimately, Lyles said these kind of missions will help show the community what the Guard is all about. 

“It gets us out in the community and shows our capabilities, which is good, and it gets the Soldiers interacting with the community,” said Lyles. 

During COVID-19 response operations, Lyles and Moses are also working in tandem to advise VNG and DMA leadership on various safety-related topics, including personal protective equipment, or PPE. Specifically, they help create policy that dictates what level of PPE is required for Soldiers or state employees on specific types of missions. 

“We work closely with the medical people to make sure that everybody understands proper PPE,” said Lyles. “If you’re doing a food mission, here’s what you’re supposed to have on, and if you’re doing a mask mission, here’s what you’re supposed to have on, all the way down to our providers doing testing.”

In addition to keeping Soldiers and state employees safe and healthy during ongoing response missions, Lyles and Moses are continually working with other departments with an eye to the future, including what facilities and precautions will need to be in place when the Guard and DMA staff eventually begin returning to work, even though there’s no beginning date for that process set yet. 

“We work with environmental and medical in everything we do,” said Lyles. “It’s a collaborative event where not only will we be dealing with what we’re doing now with the Soldiers coming on and off orders and performing missions, but we want to prepare ourselves for when we gradually come back to work.”

During domestic operations, the VNG receives mission taskings from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and can’t respond to direct requests for assistance. Localities looking for VNG support should contact VDEM and make a request. Read more about the VNG’s statewide response at https://go.usa.gov/xvQgp