Over the last 20 years, new materials and fabrics have contributed significantly to the wearability of body armor. Today’s vests boast increased ballistic protection, more flexibility, less weight and better comfort. Some in-vest materials even go so far as to protect against sharp-edged weapons and electromagnetic shock.
This is truly life-saving equipment. And as such, it needs to be treated with respect. Too often, improper “maintenance” techniques damage armor’s ballistic performance capabilities. (And who can afford to run out and buy a second set?) If body armor is cared for properly, it will care for you — for a long time to come.
The NIJ has sponsored research that indicates age is not the only factor in determining the service life of armor. Other factors include how regularly the armor was worn, whether the armor fits properly and how it was cared for. Take a look at this Q&A with Matt Davis, CEO of Armor Express, and Michael Foreman, senior vice president at Point Blank Solutions and retired chief at Orange County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Department.
If you’ve been slacking on your body armor cleaning and care routine, now’s the time to get it right. Of course, cleaning and care instruction will vary from brand to brand. This information should be used as a guide, but not as a replacement for your armor’s manufacturer documentation. Always check with your carrier’s specific instructions, and call the company if you have a question.
Have NIJ-06 standards changed the way in which officers should care for their body armor?
Michael Foreman: How you care for it remains the same. And when I say “care,” that means the maintenance of the carrier and how it is washed and maintained, as well as how the ballistic panels are maintained. Always wipe off ballistic panels with a damp cloth.
The advantage of the .06 standard is that, now that armor is heat-sealed and waterproofed as part of the new standard, the likelihood that an officer could inadvertently expose their ballistics to water, which is the number one enemy of ballistic fibers, is unlikely. Throughout my 36 years in law enforcement I’ve found that officers would sometimes do the darndest things when it came to caring for their armor — putting it in the dishwasher, for example. Obviously that’s the extreme. In general, the maintenance routine remains the same. However, now that they have a different layer of protection and are protected from moisture, if there was inadvertent contact with water or some type of cleaning solution, the ballistic panels are now protected.
What are some things officers should absolutely NOT do to their body armor?
Foreman: Definitely avoid any prolonged, direct exposure to water. Do not use chemicals that are cleaning agents, bleach, or anything that could damage the ballistic fibers.
Matt Davis: Do not wash the armor panels in a washing machine. Don’t dry clean or iron the carriers and do not use highly acidic cleaners on the armor panels or carriers.
What are some of the more important practices officers should be aware of?
Foreman: Whenever possible, try to keep it stored in a climate-controlled environment; do not expose the vest to extreme temperatures or conditions over time, and do not store in direct sunlight. This will extend the life of your vest.
What is the best way to wash ballistic vests?
Foreman: First, remove the ballistic panels from the carrier. Most of the carriers today are machine washable; I would recommend to follow the manufacturers’ instructions, wash them out with detergent; the ballistic panels simply should be wiped with a damp sponge and dried off.
They should not be submerged completely in water, and cleaning agents or chemicals should not be used on the surface.
Davis says some armor panels can be wiped down with a mild soap. Machine wash the carriers on a gentle cycle after removing the ballistic panels and Velcro at a cool temperature. Lay flat to air dry.
How are vests best deodorized?
Foreman does not recommend spraying any chemical directly onto PBBA products, and says regularly scheduled washings of the carrier, which is the item that holds onto odor and other foul smells, will protect the armor.
Davis: There are many non-toxic deodorizing products commercially available that can be purchased in your local supermarkets. But always check the ingredients and avoid harsh chemicals, such as bleach.
What should officers be aware of when they go to inspect their armor for rips and tears? What are they looking for?
Davis: Check the seams of your panels. There should be no separation whatsoever; the pad covers should be air-tight, sealed and in-tact. If this is not the case then contact your manufacturer. NIJ-approved ballistics are covered under a five-year warranty — this includes the seam-sealed pad cover.
Foreman: Another thing to look for when inspecting are any creases or folds that could be forming over time that could weaken the ballistic panel if a permanent crease or fold forms. Part of that process is to ensure that an officer is properly fit, that when they are in a standing position or seated position in the patrol car, the vest continues to fit properly and there are no folds or creases or curling. Unnecessary folds and creases are created by an improper-fitting vest.
How often should an officer perform regular cleanings and inspections?
Foreman: It’s good hygiene practice; it’s basically recommended that the carrier be washed weekly as you would any item, and it can be washed more than once per week, but most officers either work on a four-day work schedule or work two to three days at a time, so on their days off they can launder it, but at a minimum we recommend once a week.
Say an officer’s body size or job duty has changed. What should he or she do to ensure a proper fit?
Foreman: The number one problem officers face regarding body armor is change in the body shape or size over time. Make sure the vest fits properly and is still comfortable to wear. If there’s a radical change in the body shape or size they’re encouraged to be resized and consider an updated or newer vest so they have proper coverage. The number one thing about body armor is it’s for the officer’s safety, it’s to save lives, and one way of doing that is to ensure it fits properly and covers the body appropriately.