A Pocatello-based manufacturer of medical alert devices has started producing medical-grade face masks, seeking to bolster domestic supplies of personal protective equipment amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

LiveFree Emergency Response Inc., located in a 17,000-square-foot warehouse at 3411 Hawthorne Road, employs about 50 workers in Pocatello and is in the process of hiring between 50 and 70 additional staff members for its new division, called LiveFree Personal Protection.

Brothers Jake and Josh Chandler opened the local plant about a decade ago and developed the world’s first mobile medical alert button, which is housed in a watch and sends a notification when the wearer falls. The device, which has a specialized antenna that emits little radiation to comply with federal health guidelines, also allows for tracking of missing people and can send an alert when the wearer wanders outside of a specified area.

They expect that their new face mask production lines will have the capacity to make up to 800,000 flat, blue surgical masks per month, and approximately the same volume of conical N95 respirator masks. Medical-grade masks have been in short supply during the pandemic, and the brothers intend to provide local hospitals and health care providers with a reservoir of PPE. Currently, a large percentage of the PPE used in the U.S. comes from China.

They’ve already reached a gentleman’s agreement to maintain a stockpile of masks for Mountain View Hospital in Idaho Falls.

“There are very few things in the world that everybody, no matter what their politics are, can agree on, and one of them is that these kinds of products that we need we really ought to make here and we really ought to have a plan so that the next time something like this happens we’re prepared and we can do it here instead of having to wait for somebody in another country to get on the ball for us,” Josh Chandler said.

Because Idaho has a small population relative to other states, the brothers believe the Gem State isn’t always at the front of the line for such crucial supplies.

“I think it’s valuable for the community. I think it shortens the time for somebody needing something and being able to get it,” Josh Chandler said of the new face mask division. “Our goal is to sell as much locally as we possibly can.”

Josh Chandler, a licensed attorney who lives in Idaho Falls and commutes to work in Pocatello, has been working on getting the masks certified. He hopes to have certification approved to start selling N95 masks before the end of November. The company is already offering surgeon’s masks for general use and anticipates having certification before the month’s end to sell them for surgical use.

“We got our preliminary certifications already passed and our quality system has passed its first audit,” Josh Chandler said. “Our products are testing properly, and they’re right now up for some final tests.”

The company added a second story to its warehouse for making the masks. They funded the expansion with revenue from their existing medical alert business.

They expect face mask sales will eclipse revenue from medical alert devices within a year, and they also intend to eventually offer surgical gowns, hairnets, shoe coverings and gloves.

China manufactures the brothers’ medical alert devices. Jake Chandler explained the impetus for entering the PPE industry came when a large distributor of medical alert devices asked them if they could find a Chinese supplier of face masks. They decided to make the face masks domestically when they discovered there was a global shortage of them.

Jake Chandler said his company is working to bring the entire mask supply chain into the U.S. and aims to make certain local front-line workers are adequately supplied with PPE when the next pandemic arrives. He said area hospitals still aren’t receiving the PPE that they demand.

They’re also in negotiations about opening a small factory in Pennsylvania to make a stockpile of masks for the Keystone State.

“It’s a huge national security issue and health issue to have production here, especially when we have the capabilities,” Jake Chandler said. “What I don’t want to see, we’ve talked to some nurses who wore the same mask for three weeks while they were caring for a COVID patient. That’s a problem for me.”

Filter layers for surgical-grade masks have been in especially short supply. Working in collaboration with a petrochemical engineer from Wisconsin, the brothers purchased and set up a machine that makes a product called meltblown — molten plastic blown onto fabric that randomly intertwines and creates an effective filtration barrier. A special polymer is added that gives the filter an electrostatic charge, thereby binding viruses and other microscopic particles.

The brothers will apply for an Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission grant in collaboration with Idaho State University to better automate their production process. They plan to work with Geran Call, with ISU’s robotics program.

Call said applications are due by mid-December, and recipients should be announced by January or February. He’s already surveyed their production processes and hopes to help the brothers implement plans to make their operation safer and more efficient.

Call, who previously helped the Idaho National Laboratory automate the scrubbing system of a nuclear reactor, said automation should enable the brothers to operate longer hours without interruption and put out more product.

“I think the first thing we want to do is make it safe,” Call added. “There are some mechanisms in there that aren’t as safe as they should be.”

Josh Chandler has been involved in several business ventures throughout his career, but ramping up to produce masks represents his proudest moment.

“It fills a critical need not just from a business perspective but for the whole community and even the country,” Josh Chandler said.