PROTECTION against IMMINENT

The new NIJ Standard 0101.06 for ballistic body armor has manufacturers going to even greater lengths to ensure officers' safety


     A little over two years ago, Beacon, New York, police officer Anthony Hopper was dispatched to a suspicious person in a vehicle complaint. It was a 1:50 in the afternoon on a beautiful, sunny autumn day. That's how Hopper remembers it.

     "It's not the time that you'd figure you'd be in the middle of a gun fight," recalls Hopper, "But that's what took place."

     Almost immediately after Hopper engaged the driver, the driver produced an automatic handgun and shot him point-blank through the driver's side window. The bullet struck Hopper in the center of the chest. Doctors told him that had the bullet penetrated the armor and gone through, it most likely would have killed him.

     In an effort to continue to serve all those in the line of fire, the U.S. Department of Justice is currently working to unveil a newly updated standard for all body armor. Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ Standard 0101.06 will test ballistic materials against the most rigorous requirements. In partnership with all body armor manufacturers, the revised NIJ Standard 0101.06 aims to review armor classifications, detail requirements and discuss test methods in order to produce the safest ballistic wear yet.

Weighing in

     Despite having survived the shooting, Hopper was not without physical scars. Shards of glass flew from the window and created over 60 lacerations to his face and neck. Hopper also says it took him a long time to heal from the soreness created by impact. Soft material vests capture rounds and prevent them from going any further. But as Hopper points out, "expelled energy from the round has got to be absorbed somewhere. It's possible the blunt trauma, depending on the round, can kill an officer if the round doesn't penetrate the vest;" which is why he thinks it's imperative that manufacturers and the NIJ continue to explore what they can do to dissipate that energy.

     Personal armor covered by the new standard is classified into five types: (IIA, II, IIIA, III and IV), by level of ballistic performance. New vests will be heavier, bulkier and more expensive than before. But a heavier vest doesn't necessarily mean officers will be more weighed down. Tom Dragone, vice president of research and development at Point Blank Solutions, feels heavier armor will cause some wearers to shift levels in order to keep the feel of what they normally use. In general, a IIA vest will weigh the same as a current level II, and will stop the same threats as before.

     "It's kind of an adjustment of what level you really need, and a trade-off between protection and comfort. In the past when armor was too heavy officers just didn't wear it. And armor that's not worn can't protect you," says Dragone.

     Georg Olsen, general manager of U.S. Armor, agrees. He stresses that the new design will not cancel out older models that may still be in use. "It's a phase-in. It doesn't mean the other [models] are bad," says Olsen. He adds that he's "still challenged to find a safety product with that many years of unmitigated success [as ballistic vets]."

     Hopper doesn't care how heavy or uncomfortable his vest is, as long as it protects. "It hurts a lot more when you're shot than it does sitting in a car and having the unfortunate eight hours of sweating and being uncomfortable," says Hopper. "Obviously, the lifetime ramifications of actually being shot, and certainly death, override any discomfort. It comes along with the job, and that's the price of doing business."

Breaking down the fibers

     In November 2003, the U.S. Attorney General announced the U.S. Department of Justice's Body Armor Safety Initiative in response to concerns from the law enforcement community about the effectiveness of armor then in use. The concerns followed the failure of a relatively new Zylon-based vest worn by a Forest Hills, Pennsylvania police officer. The officer survived the shooting, but sustained severe injuries. The Forest Hills shooting was the first case ever reported to NIJ in which body armor compliant with the NIJ standard failed to prevent penetration from a bullet it was designed to defeat.

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