NESCONSET, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — During this pandemic, personal protective equipment such as N95 masks have become difficult for first responders to get their hands on.

A fire department on Long Island is taking protection to the next level with PPE it calls a game changer.

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CBS2’s Jenna DeAngelis recently took an exclusive ride along to see how it works.

The Nesconset Fire Department recently responded to a fall at an assisted living facility.

EMS coordinator George Gernhart suited up before heading inside protected himself … and the patient.

“A lot of the patients, when they see us they’re like, ‘Wow, you look like an astronaut coming in,'” Gernhart said.

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He wasn’t wearing a space suit, but a PAPR, which stands for powered air purifying respirator.

Gernhart showed DeAngelis how it works.

“You’re gonna put it on your head and clip it on,” he said.

The helmet has a face shield and connects by a hose to a device with a special HEPA filter, which straps around your waist.

‘It filters clean air and it blows it through this hose over your head,” Gernhart said.


It’s a system which protects from contaminated air, Gernhart said, for up to 20 hours before it needs a battery recharge.

“That’s a game changer, when it comes to dealing with patients very close up, especially in the back of that ambulance,” Gernhart said.

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Gernhart said he first discovered PAPR during the ebola outbreak, explaining it’s not common in Emergency Medical Services and at the time he felt it wasn’t necessary.

But then coronavirus came along.

“We realized we were competing against the whole world to get N95 masks,” Gernhart said.

The first responders turned to PAPRs as a way to protect the 118 volunteers, weighing the cost.

“They’re about over $1,500 apiece, but it’s not a throw away. You’re gonna make the initial investment and you’ll have it forever,” Gernhart said.

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The Neconsent Fire Department has a total of eight PAPR helmets, enough to equip each ambulance. DeAngelis saw two at the ready, with a few extra for the next call.

“I’ll be honest, I don’t want to go on calls without it,” firefighter and EMT Andres Hurtado said.

That’s because with it, Hurtado said he feels like he can breathe easy in more ways than one.

“I feel like I have an air conditioner on my head,” Hurtado said with a laugh, adding when asked if it makes him feel more safe when he goes home to his family, “Yeah, 100%. When we come back we disinfect everything.”

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The measures have kept the entire department, to this point, COVID-19 free.

“If you see a fire, you could feel the heat, feel the smoke. You could see something. You could sense it. But when you’re dealing with an invisible virus that you can’t see, we have to protect our people first. If they feel protected we can go out there, do our job, and not have to worry,” Gernhart said. “This isn’t going to be the last virus and we will be prepared for the next one.”

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With the PAPR, they are equipped and ready to answer the call.