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Volunteers of all stripes — and sizes — help arm health care workers with critical gear

L3Harris President Dan Gelston puts a positive air pressure respirator on daughter Anna at their home in Park City on Friday, April 24, 2020. Over 100 L3Harris engineers and employees assembled 1,200 positive air pressure respirators to donate to the University of Utah Health to protect medical first responders during the coronavirus pandemic. Gelston’s three daughters used the family’s 3D printer to create a part for the respirators.
L3Harris division president Dan Gelston puts a positive air pressure respirator on daughter Anna at their home in Park City on Friday, April 24, 2020. Over 100 L3Harris engineers and employees assembled 1,200 positive air pressure respirators to donate to the University of Utah Health to protect medical first responders during the coronavirus pandemic. Gelston’s three daughters used the family’s 3D printer to create a part for the respirators.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PARK CITY — L3Harris Technologies’ President of Broadband Communications Systems Dan Gelston is used to overseeing the production of tools that help uniformed personnel do their jobs on the battlefield.

The company Gelston works for, founded in 1956, is in the business of cranking out high-tech communications gear that is deployed on various pieces of U.S. military equipment including Predator drones. But it was still quite a change to repurpose one of the manufacturing lines at L3Harris’ facility near the Salt Lake City International Airport to build critical personal protection gear for health care workers on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.

It was a shift, however, that Gelston said he and his employees were more than happy to make.

“It feels like we’re all getting to experience a little slice of what it might have been like during World War II for everyone to come together for a common purpose,” Gelston said. “Our typical front-line customer is a soldier or intelligence officer, but for the last week or so, this work has been all about our front-line doctors and nurses.”

Gelston said he had more volunteers than he could use from his staff of about 3,000 that wanted to participate in assembling 1,000 Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR) to donate to the University of Utah Health System to protect medical first responders.

A number of L3Harris engineers heard there was an urgent need for the personal respirators, which strap on to medical personnel and provide a much higher level of protection from communicable infection than the widely used N95 filter masks.

Gelston said his engineers worked with the U.’s Center for Medical Innovation on designing a personal respirator unit they could build themselves, combining off-the-shelf components with some custom-made parts. L3Harris, the U. and other partners put their collective batteries of 3D printers to work fabricating the custom parts needed for the respirators, and Gelston said about 100 people worked on putting the units together, though twice as many staff members as needed offered to volunteer on the project.

In addition to the employee volunteers and institutional partners that helped bring the project together were a trio of specialists whose work Gelston is very familiar with.

His three daughters — Ella, 12, Sofia, 9 and Anna, 8 — teamed up to use the Gelston’s home 3D printer to fabricate a part that connects the respirator fan to an air hose assembly. The Gelston gals took turns loading materials and unloading the machine for over a week as it was only able to create one part every five hours or so. Still, they were able to contribute dozens of the critical parts to the project and also get to instill a little of their own personalities into the protective gear, choosing a hot pink printer material to create the components.

Ella said she was happy to have a project to work on in addition to the at-home studying and homework that’s been her new normal since schools closed. She said it also felt good to play a part in the effort to bring the pandemic to an end as soon as possible.

“It was really cool that we were helping people with their thing so they didn’t get coronavirus at the hospital,” Ella said. “It made me happy I was doing that and helping lead to coronavirus getting out of Utah sooner rather than later.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered or severely restricted the operations of thousands of businesses across the state, Gelston said, as a contractor of critical U.S. defense equipment, L3Harris has been obligated to stay operating throughout the crisis.

Gelston said while about 60% of his employees have been able to perform their work tasks from home, production team members continue to work at the company’s sprawling complex that includes 12 buildings and over 1 million square feet of operational space. Social distancing protocols are in place, Gelston said, as is a robust cleaning and disinfecting program. The measures have proven effective as Gelston reports no cases of COVID-19 infection among those on the L3Harris roster.

Gelston said U. Health was supplied with an initial run of 1,000 respirators and a follow-up batch of 200, which completed the planned work. But he’s hearing from some other local health care providers that they may also be looking for the protective gear.

If necessary, Gelston said the production could be brought back online and noted his staff and project partners were proud to have an opportunity to play a part in keeping health care professionals safe.

“It’s been phenomenally positive,” Gelston said. “Our staff is used to playing a role in contributing to national security, but it was an amazing opportunity to be a part of the fight against COVID-19.”

Correction: An earlier version misidentified Dan Gelston as head of L3Harris Technologies. Gelston is president of the company’s Broadband Communications Systems division.