Charlestown police-light maker shifts operation to face masks

  • A Whelen Engineering employee works to construct a facemask at the company's Charlestown, N.H., plant. (Whelen Engineering photograph)

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 4/24/2020 9:50:49 PM
Modified: 4/24/2020 9:50:37 PM

CHARLESTOWN — Whelen Engineering designs and makes the blue and red flashing lights found on many police cruisers and ambulances. The company probably knows something about what first responders need.

Now the Charlestown manufacturer has joined other Upper Valley companies such as Fujifilm and Vermont Glove in making personal protective equipment for health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

“A few weeks ago we started having internal discussions about what we could do to help” those battling the fight against COVID-19, said Jim Putnam, tooling manager at Whelen’s Charlestown plant. “Everyone jumped in.”

Using open-source designs, Whelen engineers came up with a face shield and a face mask. Although the face shield is fairly routine — a plastic shield with a foam rubber band at the forehead and a Velcro attachment band that can be stapled together — the face mask involved first building a 500-pound, microwave-size injection mold.

“This is the kind of thing we do every day,” Putnam said of creating the mold at the 900-employee plant in Charlestown (another 600 work at Whelen’s plant in Chester, Conn., where the PPE equipment was designed). “We have one of the best molding facilities in the region.”

The injection can stamp out up to 2,000 plastic masks a day, Putnam said. The face shields and face masks are distributed to hospitals such as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon and Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont as well as Yale New Haven Health and UConn Health in Connecticut, among other recipients.

A manufacturing “cell” was set up at the Charlestown plant, which is being staffed by employee volunteers (one enterprising employee reminded the team to put the red Whelen company logo on each face shield).

And although Whelen hasn’t made PPE equipment previously, it nonetheless syncs with the company’s longtime business, Putnam noted.

“We make emergency vehicle lighting. This is not the type of work we typically do,” Putnam said. “But this is definitely helping our traditional customers because they are first responders on the front line.”

John Lippman can be reached at

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