Beefing up ballistic resistance

      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 His body armor vest, made with Zylon, a material that has since been revoked as NIJ-compliant for body armor, failed.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.

   However, the introduction of an updated standard does not invalidate body armor that was previously certified. In the report, John Morgan, deputy director for science and technology with the National Institute of Justice, states it is not necessary to immediately remove older certified armor from service. Manufacturers suggest agencies adhere to the formerly suggested (now part of the 0101.06 standard) five-year term of a body armor package as the basis for expiration and replacement time.

Flexing the armor's muscles

   Campbell says today's armor has come a long way since those he wore as a military policeman and later as an Oakland (Calif.) patrol supervisor and SWAT team leader.

   "My first vest was 100-percent Kevlar. It was square, maybe 13 inches by 13 inches on my chest and my back. It was very thick," says Campbell, now a director of ballistic protection sales with MSA. "It was like wearing a postage stamp." Since then, Campbell has worn a variety of different armor, including a Zylon-containing vest for nearly four years (before the aging and degradation problems with Zylon were recognized). He says over the 18 years he wore ballistic protective vests, he found that hybrid vests, such as MSA's KNX Ballistic Packages in Level II and IIIA, are his favorite. The newly certified vests use woven aramid as well as unidirectional aramid fibers, which makes them a hybrid.

   Several manufacturers have introduced NIJ-06-certified armor and are eager to flex the packages' ballistic muscles.

   In order to share information on its newly certified armor with the nation's law enforcement officers, Protective Products International (PPI) arranged several Body-Armor Shoot Events throughout July and August. The events, hosted by agencies in Georgia, Texas, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, allowed officers to see the effectiveness of PPI's body armor against a variety of rounds in person.

   Sgt. Todd Wrage, training officer and host of the PPI shoot event that took place in Oshkosh, Wis., in early August, says the attendees were surprised by the protective capabilities they saw.

   "I think I can speak for everybody there when I say that we were actually all really impressed with the protective properties of the vest itself," Wrage says. "I actually fired two rounds with the .357 SIG, [with] the end of the muzzle touching the vest." Wrage adds the armor was not penetrated past the first five or six layers of the vest by the contact shots he fired.

   PPI's newly NIJ-tested model, DX-IIA, incorporates woven fabric utilizing Teijin Aramid's Twaron para-aramid fiber and DSM Dyneema's non-woven unidirectional Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene fiber.

Other protective abilities

   A new armor offering from Point Blank adds an extra layer of protection.

   The KXPIIIA ballistic model is available in both Point Blank Body Armor's Hi-Lite XP and Protective Apparel Corp. of America's (PACA's) Perform XP models. In addition to the benefits of the NIJ-06-certified armor, unique to the PACA and Point Blank packages is ThorShield technology, a durable, lightweight, conductive material lining. ThorShield completes electroshock or stun device circuits, protecting officers should a suspect attempt to use an electronic control device on them.

   Safariland's body armor marketing manager Angela Milligan explains that a big change officers will see in the NIJ-06 armor is the performance increase.

   Safariland's XT Series of concealable body armor covers the company's ballistic-only armor, or the armor that most officers wear. "Under the XT armor, the XP300 is more of a balanced offering between performance and comfort," Milligan says. "It's a little bit more pliable and flexible." Safariland also offers a hybrid design, the XP700, which according to the company is its high performance offering. Both of these packages are offered in a Level II and Level IIIA and in addition, XP300 includes a Level IIA.

Transition and adjustments

   While some agencies are getting the jump on the transition to new body armor packages, some may bide their time.

   As new models were first made available in June 2009, agencies might prefer to wait until more options are available for comparison.

   Foreman with Point Blank says a couple of factors play a part in the length of time an agency will take to procure newly certified armor and retire the old.

   "The economy has impacted expenditure on equipment and related items," he explains. "You don't see the number of new officers being hired and thus, you don't see the new equipment."

   Wrage, who has worn three different ballistic vests in his 15-year career, says there may be some adjusting to some of the necessary evils of the tougher armor.

   "If there is a downside to it, it's the carrier," Wrage explains. "It's got a waterproof membrane that encompasses it. It's not very pliable at times." However, he notes that in the past, other models needed some breaking in.

   Ballistic vests that perform under the new 0101.06 NIJ standard are tested to be stronger, more resistant and hold up better against atmospheric conditions and wear.

   Even on its worst performing day, the armor needs to stop a bullet meant for an officer. Trusting the armor's capability, it is hoped, can give an officer confidence and prevent a seed of doubt from distracting the sentries in our cities and on the streets.

   But some armor makers say they'd rather officers not have the chance to see how far the standard has advanced armor.

   "Hopefully, you never have to use this performance because when an officer actually sees this performance, a bullet is actually engaging with the armor," Milligan says.

   "We hope that all of our officers on the street are safe all the time."

   But should a threat present, officers shouldn't have to rely on a false sense of safety again.


Protecting the protectors

   Companies with body armor products that are NIJ-tested and certified to the new 0101.06 Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor standard include:

  • Blackhawk Armor
  • GH Armor Systems
  • Mine Safety Appliances (MSA)
  • PACA
  • Pacific Safety Products
  • Point Blank Body Armor
  • Protective Products International (PPI)
  • Safariland
  • Survival Armor Inc.