NORTH SMITHFIELD – The nationwide shortage of N-95 masks isn’t just about lack of supply, and thanks to an innovative project put together through donations from a town business and one school teacher, some relief may be on the way for local fire departments.

The masks, necessary personal protective equipment for those visiting homes and answering emergency calls amid the pandemic, are thrown away at much faster rate to prevent the potential spread of COVID 19.

“Most of our protection comes from our N-95 masks,” explained North Smithfield resident Andrew Harvey, who works as a lieutenant for the Cumberland EMS Department.

Nowadays, gear is thrown away not only after working with a virus-positive patient, Harvey explained. First responders have been going through cases of the masks, which are changed every time they visit a patient considered high risk, or even after standing in a room with anyone showing symptoms who may have had exposure.

Right now, rescue units are burning through around $200 in masks every day, and beyond the expense, the face coverings have become increasingly hard to find.

Deputy Chief Joseph DeAngelis and Lt. Jason Gomes began searching for a solution to the mask shortage online, and came across information from one town where fire personnel have been using UV light to effectively sterilize the gear, and kill the virus. The technology is already widely used in hospitals, but is generally difficult and expensive to set up in smaller spaces, such as rescues and fire departments.

One problem is that ultraviolet rays give off radiation that can damage eyes and cause cancers, so lights must be kept in a fully sealed containers. Small boxes that contain the virus-killing lighting are already sold on the market for $2,000 to $3,000 a pop, an unrealistic expense for local departments, which are already stretched financially.

But in one Colorado town, fire personnel began building the boxes themselves.

“They’ve done it and they have a couple of these set up, and they’re working,” Harvey said.

Harvey took the two-page plans discovered by DeAngelis and Gomes to North Smithfield High School Technology Education teacher Robert Skinner to see if students could construct a few boxes to be used in Cumberland and North Smithfield.

The following day, Skinner showed up at his home to donate seven.

Harvey’s wife Terry Harvey owns Travel with Terry, and the business purchased all of the mirrors needed for the contraptions from Woonsocket-based Rite Glass, Inc.

Once complete, the boxes will not only allow Cumberland EMTs to reuse dozens of masks, but will also be delivered to fire departments in North Smithfield, Burrillville and Woonsocket.

The final expense – lights themselves costing around $70, with two needed for each box – will come from the departments.

While dirtier masks – anything hit with fluids or used in direct contact with a COVID 19 patient – will still be thrown away, dozens more will be “cooked” in the new contraption, which kill bacteria in just 20 minutes.

Officials warn that ultraviolet light is harmful to human health, and that it’s a process to make sure the boxes are fully sealed and safe to use.  And the basic wood boxes will break over time, so it’s not a permanent solution.

But as emergency personnel across northern Rhode Island look for new ways to protect themselves from an unprecedented threat to human health, the creations will provide some relief.

“We’re not saying it’s perfect,” Harvey said. “We’re just trying to do what we can do to help.”

Editor’s note: Writer Sandy Seoane is Terry Harvey’s sister.

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