The ABCs of PPE

     Just as the O.J. Simpson trial compelled law enforcement agencies to reconsider how they were collecting and handling evidence, the September 11 attacks forced agencies across the country to redefine their missions in light of terrorism and how to respond. The attacks prompted technological developments, including within the personal protective equipment (PPE) arena, as it became evident that the unthinkable had happened, and could likely happen again.

     It's not only the escalated threat of a chem/bio attack that has focused more attention on PPE; the larger weapons increasingly turning up on the streets have placed new demands on law enforcement and on PPE manufacturers alike.

     "Several years ago, we rarely saw .223 ammunition in the hands of the bad guys," says James Scanlon, an officer for the Columbus (Ohio) Police Department and co-founder and assistant SWAT team leader of the North American SWAT Training Association (NASTA). "Today, it's common to find AK-47s and M-16s. The need for better armor is obvious, but it must be functional. The top priority must be stopping bullets. Equal to, or a close second, is the ability to move, shoot, fight and function in the armor."

     These realities made taking a fresh look at PPE requirements necessary. Take the case of body armor, says Scanlon.

     "The armor companies claim to size each vest to you individually," he says. "This may happen with some companies ... but it's never happened to me. We get measured to the point of blushing, but when the body armor arrives, it appears to be generic measurements. If it doesn't fit right, you can't sit down in a raid van, you can't assume the correct shooting stance, and it's so uncomfortable [that] you don less protective armor. Obviously officers want to wear gear that stops bullets, but it must be functional."

     PPE manufacturers, he concludes, need to make lighter-weight armor that offers better protection, greater flexibility and is easier to conceal. And it gets even more challenging when it comes to gear designed for CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) incidents, where law enforcement users — and therefore PPE manufacturers — are challenged in several respects. One of the biggest issues is that up to and after September 11, ensembles were designed for user groups such fire departments, instead of law enforcement, says Lt. Ed Allen, emergency management coordinator with the Seminole County Sheriff's Department in Stanford, Florida. "They were not intentionally designed for us," Allen explains. "There are military ensembles which more closely match what we do, but they're still not right for our mission."

     Lt. Tom Nolan, an officer with the Upper Merion (Pennsylvania) Township Police Department agrees. Nolan is the section chair for multi-jurisdictional SWAT and currently a SWAT team leader. He is also one of the National Tactical Officer's Association reps on the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) special committee to write law enforcement CBRN PPE standards.

     "Prior to 9/11, most didn't see this was the kind of environment where law enforcement would be operating," Nolan says. "Afterward, it became evident that law enforcement would possibly need to operate in this kind of environment. Prior to this, if you had a hazmat [call] ... law enforcement provided support. So the equipment was designed for a different mission. But now, law enforcement may be going in to confront an aggressor."

     Nolan continues, where the fire department may prefer bright colors on its outerwear in order to stand out, SWAT may want to be more inconspicuous. The fire department can wear noisy materials — this is sometimes referred to as the crinkle factor — but if law enforcement is in a crisis phase, they may prefer more stealth fabrics. Nolan lists other differences, such as:

  • Interfacing of law enforcement equipment: Nolan says incorporating holsters, scopes or gloves could become an issue. "Will the weapons tear the gloves, or ... hinder the handling of the weapon?"
  • Garment durability: Unlike fire department personnel, law enforcement may have to run and jump over things, he says.
  • Heat stress and comfort: Heat can build up, especially if the wearer is active, which can have a compromising effect on performance.

     Heat stress is such a huge issue that in its guidelines, Seminole County wrote that no one should be in the ensemble for more than 2 hours, says Allen.

     Another problem is that the ensembles make wearers feel constricted, says Allen. Their field of vision is compromised, it's hard to operate equipment and there's a loss of sensation, especially tactile, he says. PPE manufacturers are aware of these and other concerns and are responding in innovative ways (See "Innovative solutions to PPE challenges" on Page 26).

     "Still," says Allen, "we've been pushing NIJ to write standards for law enforcement so we can push manufacturers to make ensembles for us."

     Nolan hopes the next standards on the horizon will be those for SCBA/APR equipment, but currently, the CBRN PPE committee is tying respiratory needs standards into garment standards. He expects the proposed standards to be public in August 2008. (Editor's note: As of publication, a final proposal was not available.)

     He says departments can decide their PPE needs by breaking them down into three categories: (1) air-permeable, which allow some air to pass through but still have a liner that will capture toxic vapors; (2) semi-permeable membranes, designed to wick away body heat while stopping contamination; and (3) barrier material, constructed to block out everything, resulting in more heat stress but optimal protection. If they can afford to, agencies should try to mix it up.

     As it stands today, departments purchasing PPE gear can buy what they like, if they're purchasing out of their own budgets, Nolan says. "But if you're going to use DHS funds, the purchase has to meet a standard and the NFPA standard is the main one out there," he says. "The problem is, not all [gear] will meet the NFPA standard."

     Allen, who teaches an NTOA course called "Tactical Operations in a Hazardous Environment," says he sees mistakes in the procurement process. He calls for more law enforcement involvement in the development process.

     "We're trying to get people involved in committees and focus groups," Allen says. "There are all kinds of committees and focus groups and we see a lot more involvement from other agencies like fire, public health and emergency management."

     PPE manufacturers could be impacted by the proposed standards, and may have to change their products, Allen concedes, although he says this could create a whole new user group. Manufacturers are looking forward to reviewing the standards, and it is hoped the revamped standards will lead the law enforcement community a step forward, says Armando Lopez Jr., vice president of government programs for Tex-Shield Inc.

     "Law enforcement missions are very different from most fire and hazmat missions," says Lopez. "No one who really understands integrated incident response wants to equip law enforcement like firefighters or hazmat technicians."