In August 2005, NIJ released a report stating that "Although results do not conclusively prove that all Zylon-containing body armor models have performance problems, results show that armor containing Zylon fibers show a systematic loss in tensile strength, and ballistic performance correlated with the breakage of specific bonds in the chemical structure of the material; [and vests] may not provide the intended level of ballistic resistance."
Since these findings, court-ordered replacements were issued to approximately two of every three police officers in the country (these replacements are now due to expire within the next 12-18 months). Companies have since moved away from the use of Zylon and are experimenting with a range of alternative materials.
Dragone says that at Point Blank, they begin production by first understanding the available materials and how they perform. Companies are now working more with woven aramids like Kevlar and Twaron; as well as laminate structures GoldFlex and Spectra Flex. All of these systems are hybridized, meaning a variety of materials is used depending on the threat and what they're trying to defeat.More rigorous testing
After the proper material is selected, vests are put to the test. The main goal of the redesign, after all, is to make ballistic systems more robust. To that end, manufacturers must implement complex testing procedures. This includes actual ballistics testing (NIJ 06 requires 144 shots to be fired versus 04's 48 shots), at higher velocities than required with the previous 0101.04 standard.
One significant change includes performing an additional trauma transfer measurement, or 'backface signature' in the clay. "The requirements of backface are no more than 44mm in indentation into the clay medium used to measure energy transfer," says Dragone. "Because of the stringency vis-à-vis more shots, higher velocity and being closer to the edge, we have to design vests that can meet these requirements."
Models must also undergo an artificial aging process involving exposure to high temperatures and humidity. First Choice Armor has recently added the custom environmental chamber to its existing labs. Dale Taylor, senior vice president of products at First Choice, says that the conditioning protocol set in NIJ 06 is not intended to predict the service life of a vest or its exact time in the field, rather it can provide some indication of an armor's ability to maintain ballistic performance after exposure to conditions of heat moisture and mechanical wear. Vests are exposed to 149 degrees Fahrenheit and 80 percent relative humidity, and a large drum simulates mechanical wear.
This sort of testing doesn't come cheap. Certification alone now costs companies an average of $20,000 to $25,000 per model under the 06 standard, compared with the previous $5,000-a-piece. And this number doesn't factor in the research and design, in-house testing, etc. that occurs at manufacturers' facilities before a model is submitted for certification.
Dragone sees a benefit to this. He says that in addition to safety, it's simply too costly for companies to cut corners and fail as a result. In fact, he says it's common for all manufacturers [to allow for] an additional margin of safety. "They know there's a loss of performance as vests gets older, and they want to make sure they always opt for being safe. From a business perspective, you don't want to submit samples that fail and have to do it over again," says Dragone. "So you've got a safety concern, and also a financial concern."Changing over
To ensure maximum protection, agencies must replace their body armor on time. Sgt. Marc Butler with the New Carrollton (Maryland) Police Department says he's been taught to replace the equipment every four years. "I know the manufacturers say five, but we don't want to be near that deadline, have a miscalculation and have it fail the officer," says Butler.
Realistically, it can be difficult for civilian administrators trying to keep a budget to put a price on an article that, to officers, is priceless. It may become even more difficult now that the cost of body armor is on the rise. But avenues other than direct purchase are sometimes available. If agencies are lucky enough to obtain vest grants, it helps significantly. When Butler received a matching vest grant through the DOJ a few years back, the opportunity freed up any price concerns he may have had and let him focus more on the overall make and quality of the product.