Beefing up ballistic resistance

New NIJ standard carries harsher testing and advanced environmental conditioning to better protect the protectors

      It was one of an officer's worst nightmares.

   In 2003, one officer discovered — too late — that his ballistic protection had been providing him a false sense of security. His body armor vest, made with Zylon, a material that has since been revoked as NIJ-compliant for body armor, failed.

   According to reports, a bullet passed through the armor, continued into his chest, severing his carotid artery, severely incapacitating him; he was unable to escape for cover, was shot 12 more times and died.

   Allegedly, due to light-, heat- and humidity-induced deterioration of the Zylon material, its ability to protect wearers was compromised.

   A few weeks later in Pennsylvania, news agencies reported Officer Edward Limbacher of Forest Hills was shot during a drug bust and seriously injured when a .40-caliber bullet pierced his vest.

   But recently, as the industry envisioned the next generation of protective vests, faulty armor was not the only concern authorities and vest compliance enforcers had; the increasing threat on the street was also cause for alarm.

   Just a couple months prior to the release of the newly certified body armor models this year, three police officers were killed in a shootout in Oakland, Calif.

   A month later in Pittsburgh, three more police officers were shot to death after responding to a domestic argument call. Authorities believe the shooter, wearing a bullet-proof vest, aimed more than 100 rounds at police using an AK-47 and continued to fire from a bedroom window, shooting at an armored vehicle and preventing officers and medics from reaching the wounded policemen inside.

   Though in some cases, better armor would not have protected victims from shots to the head, the shootings are a reminder of the ubiquitous presence of danger to officers.

   In order to prevent future injuries or deaths due to failing body armor, and to beef up ballistic resistance and endurance, NIJ developed a new standard. Testing for the new standard has been advanced to put the protective gear under severe punishment by simulating extreme environmental conditions to evaluate long-term performance and ensure the body armor will hold up daily in order to protector of the protectors.

The new standard

   Several additions have been incorporated into testing the next lot of body armor. Beyond upgrading the number of rounds the armor must withstand and resist (from 48 shots in 2005 to 72 today), and increasing the length and extent of wet conditioning specifications, NIJ also added new tests like artificial aging requirements and manufacturing facility audits for product conformity.

   "What we find with the new products is that they tend to be a little more robust, which means that they probably have greater stopping power than some of the previous models, giving the end-user or chief that higher level of confidence," explains Mike Foreman, senior VP of domestic and international sales of Point Blank Solutions.

   The new standard, "Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ Standard-0101.06," was released in July 2008. Since then, several companies have been able to submit products for testing and the first round of 0101.06-certified body armor products is now available.

   Not only does this increase the ballistic resistance of certified armor, it examines and confirms durable bullet-resistant materials that withstand various ambient challenges.

   Other modifications to the new standard include:

  • Bullets are going faster in the new testing, making the resistance and penetration of those certified models stronger.
  • Armor panel impact locations include shot-to-edge and shot-to-shot spacing requirements, mimicking more of a real-world threat and increasing the margin of safety in the vest.
  • NIJ now requires five template sizes be submitted for testing — accounting for the various sizes of officers — ensuring the area that spreads out the energy of bullet impact covers the spectrum of humans who will wear the armor, says former Officer Doug Campbell, MSA ballistic sales director.
  • Additionally, preconditioning and aging to measure the amount of resistance lost or compromised as a result of wear and tear on the body armor was tacked on.
  • Waterproofing for full-submersion was added, as opposed to the 6-minute shower simulation test required in the 0101.04 standard.
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