FLC plays critical role in civic action

Actions speak louder than words, and the leviathan effort undertaken in the last week by local citizens to fashion medical supplies for the Four Corners is at an 11. Led by Ryan Finnigan and the MakerLab at Durango’s Powerhouse Science Center, a civic task force mobilized on March 22, rallying more than 100 volunteers, including faculty, staff, facilities, and equipment from Fort Lewis College. 

Though the team comes to the table with different skillsets, the focus is singular: to ease community-wide anxiety as concerns shift from not enough toilet paper to not enough ventilators, face masks, and other vital medical provisions. While supply chains and resources bottleneck in government and industry meetings, these folks are picking up their DIY weapons and doing what doers do best: making moves. 

The unifying cry originally came from a robotics company CEO in Italy named Gui Cavalcanti. His Facebook group, Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies, started with 150 people and a goal to create a collection of accurate content to be shared amongst citizen DIY groups around the world. In the last three weeks, OSCMS has ballooned to include more than 50,000 people and a 90-page guide replete with industry standards, patterns for specific supplies, and helpful information on how to create medical supplies as efficiently and safely as possible.

Two weeks ago, emails started circulating around Durango requesting extra medical supplies. In response, Erin Lehmer and Steven Fenster, co-chairs of FLC’s Biology Department, organized a campus-wide collection of personal protection equipment, which were then packed up and delivered to local healthcare facilities.  

A specific request came from MakerLab’s Finnigan, who contacted FLC to see what resources were available. Elizabeth Bussian, Director of Community Relations at FLC, forwarded the request to Laurie Williams, Chair of FLC’s Physics & Engineering Department, who called Jason Wagner, Shop Coordinator for the P&E lab. Wagner was already in the lab working on medical supply prototypes, so he contacted Finnigan about his work. Wagner was immediately dubbed “Production Manager” for the week-old Western Slope Medical Supply Response Team. 

Thanks to generous donations from community members, the WSMSRT quickly moved from being a good idea into a legitimate organization outfitted with a budget and an independent review board triaging where supplies should be distributed. With the support of FLC’s water jets, 3D printers, and other futuristic equipment, the team started production on March 26 – and hasn’t stopped.  

“With the OSCMS as a starting point, we’ve been working with people from all over the world,” says Wagner. “We’ll say, ‘hey, we solved this problem, but we’re still having this problem,’ so it’s this joint effort around the world trying to figure out some of these problems.” 

One of their first “problems” came from San Juan Regional Medical Center, which was struggling to find an engineering firm to deliver a usable prototype for Powered Air-Purifying Respirators, known as PAPRs. PAPRs serve as an all-in-one solution that can be decontaminated and used again, in place of multiple pieces of disposable safety equipment, like N95 masks and face shields.  

“PAPRs are the safest thing we can put on doctors,” explains Wagner. “After some insanely long hours from our core team, we are on track to deliver 250 fully functional and tested PAPR units to San Juan Regional on Sunday. We are the only ones in the country that have been able to pull off making one of these, let alone 250, in less than a week.” 

As of April 2, the WSMSRT had also fashioned 180 face shields, 200 reusable hospital gowns, and 1200+ safety glasses that will be split between healthcare facilities in Durango, Cortez, Pagosa, Farmington, and Shiprock. While fielding requests from Salt Lake City, Denver, and Albuquerque, the team is working fast to document their process to share with the rest of the world, via the OSCMS channels. 

After the initial wave of supplies is delivered this Sunday, the WSMSRT will take a step back from the blitz, get some sleep, and settle into a more sustainable approach to the work. Two of the biggest challenges will be trying to create depth within the WSMSRT and prioritizing materials as the globe braces for supply chain blockages.  

“A lot of the hospitals feel okay for right now, but this isn’t going anywhere anytime soon,” says Wagner. “So the discussion is shifting from ‘what do you need now to what do you need in August?’” 

As to what’s moving him to volunteer his time and energy, Wagner acknowledges that he really hasn’t had time to think about it. “It’s just the right thing to do,” he says. “I have a particular skillset and access to the Fort’s immense resources, so it’s my responsibility to step in for the greater good.”