Level-headed ballistic protection

Modern helmets are more comfortable and used more regularly for day-to-day officer protection against today's better-armed criminals

     You could say that many law enforcement officers carry on a love/hate relationship with their ballistic helmets — at least those working for agencies that are still using old-style helmets with a harness-like sling suspension system. On the one hand, these helmets are hot, heavy and uncomfortable; qualities that seem to grow more pronounced with every passing minute. But by the same token, they save lives. In fact, according to an officer providing traffic control for a television commercial shoot in Long Beach, California, some value the protection ballistic helmets afford so much that they voluntarily wear them for routine patrol. He recalled one Los Angeles policeman, still on the force today, who went through the 1965 Watts riots in California. After that violent, deadly six-day event, he says, the officer has never worked a day without wearing his ballistic helmet — even when just on routine patrol.

     That guy was ahead of his time; though ballistic helmets were once issued primarily to SWAT and tactical teams, they're now making their way into the rank and file. For example, the San Diego (California) County Sheriff's Department is starting to issue ballistic helmets to everyday officers, says Lt. Phil Brust, who works in the agency's public affairs/media relations department. They have approximately 4,000 members, half of which are assigned to law enforcement services, says Brust. Currently, just its tactical and mobile field forces are wearing them, but the agency intends to outfit the entire department with ballistic helmets. Brust says the helmets provide the Level IIIA protection needed to protect officers from today's better armed criminals.

     "It's similar to having ballistic vests," he says. "Because of the atmosphere of today's society, and the level of criminal we're dealing with, it's an added protection we feel is good to take."

     Brust remembers the older helmets from his days on SWAT well. "They were hot, very heavy and very uncomfortable," he says. "Any time I had to wear one more than an hour, I had a splitting headache. The new ones are much lighter and more comfortable."

     The helmets that have found their way into law enforcement agencies can trace their roots back to the steel pot-type helmets used eons ago in the military, says Anthony Erickson, vice president of research for Oregon Aero Inc. (see Page 70 for more information on this and other manufacturers).

     The steel-pot helmets provided no padding. They used a harness-like sling suspension system to create a buffer zone between the head and helmet, and for grip. (As an historic aside, Erickson says steel-pot helmets doubled as cooking pots or digging tools). These helmets later evolved into the Personal Armor System for Ground Troops — known as PASGT helmets — and had a brim, unlike their predecessor. The new helmet offered improved ballistic protection over the steel-pot helmet. But it was still heavy, hot and uncomfortable, and it retained the suspension system.

     The Modular/Integrated Communication Helmet (MICH) came next, says Kevin Smith, sales manager for the Super Seer Corp. Both offered an equal level of ballistic protection, however, the brimless MICH was more comfortable to wear because the ears and neck were cut higher. This design allowed it to accommodate communications gear and a ballistic vest more comfortably, explains Smith.

     "The PASGT is being phased out by the military; the MICH is a much newer design, and so the military is moving to this," he says. "And as goes the military, so goes law enforcement."

     Even so, says Erickson, they made millions of PASGT helmets and they're still in use by militaries around the world and by law enforcement agencies across the country. A huge number of the old helmets still incorporate sling suspension systems. Consequently, there are a lot of uncomfortable heads out there.

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