An N95 respirator is an important piece of an EMT's personal protective equipment, the use of which has been made more common with the outbreaks of COVID-19 and its variants. The N95 and its compatriot the P100 are both respirators which filter inhaled air in order to provide a greater measure of protection to the wearer than a face shield or surgical mask on the patient may. N95s and P100s are utilized for patients who have droplet and contact precautions required, and for scenes where there is a risk of inhaled contaminants such as the scene of an active fire. If the scene contains increasingly harmful elements, respirators may be exchanged for fully contained SCBAs.
An N95 respirator works by forcing inhaled air through membranes designed to trap particulates in the air, thereby "filtering" it and reducing the potential load the wearer is exposed to. N95s have several vulnerabilities; a poor seal is the most common and is the reason for which most, if not all, EMS employers mandate fit testing for their employees. N95s also lose functionality when wet or exposed to oil. A P100 loses its vulnerability to oil but retains all other potential failure points that the N95 does.
Respirators come in a vast amount of sizes, constructions, and manufacturers. A respirator may be sufficient for one condition while not fully meeting the needs of another, for example a respirator with a one way exhalation port would be sufficient for use in a construction standpoint where the wearer is the only person needing protection. That same respirator would not prove sufficient in most COVID 19 settings where it is not only the rescuer who needs protection but also the patient. A one-way valve only allows for filtration of inhaled air, not exhaled air. Similarly, reusable masks are used in different situations than disposable ones.
When utilizing an N95, P100, or other FFR perform the adequate fit testing and safety checks required by the manufacturer or employer prior to use in the field. If possible, try to carry a spare mask that may be utilized if the first becomes compromised (for example, a sweaty EMT performing CPR will compromise the integrity of their respirator if enough sweat soaks into it).
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