Bendigo inventor Mike Taylor was inspired to design his Fair Air mask when he discovered volunteer firefighters were provided with little protection for their lungs.
Mr Taylor joined the volunteer fire service when he lived in the ACT.
“When I got given all my new gear – the overalls, the boots, they even gave me socks – I said, ‘well, what about my lungs?’
“They told me to use an old nappy but I thought there had to be something better.”
Mr Taylor said the best filtration product he could find was from America, but it was made with polystyrene balls – an extremely flammable and toxic material when burnt.
“I also thought disposable masks were quite wasteful and I wanted something that lasted longer,” he said.
The trick was finding an electro-static material – a material that can filter out the very small smoke particles – made from natural fibres.
Alpaca hair did the job, and because Mr Taylor only needs fibres of 30mm – half the length required for most other alpaca wool processing – he found he could buy the materials at a much cheaper rate.
The masks are now made at a quilt company in Eaglehawk.
They can be washed and reused at least 10 times. Mr Taylor said his product had undergone strict testing at the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) and was the only respirator that could pass its fire test.
“So it’s got very good fire resistance as well as filtering,” he said.
“This product takes out 98 to 100 per cent of particles. The CFA dust masks have to take out at least 94 per cent of the particles.
“They (dust masks) are less fire resistant and shouldn’t be used with facial hair.”
Mr Taylor said the flexibility of the Fair Air mask was one of its biggest positives. It can be worn effectively with stubble, a moustache or full beard.
“How many bush firefighters do you know who are clean-shaven?” he said. “Fireys are not clean-shaven and if they are deployed on a task force for a couple of days, they probably don’t have time to shave.
“This product seals better and moulds to your face.”
Mr Taylor said studies had linked smoke inhalation to heart attacks, which were the biggest killer on the fire ground.