Level-headed ballistic protection

     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.

     But technology is providing some agreeable options. Law enforcement agencies can opt to replace their older PASGT or MICH-style helmets with newer, lighter versions of the same, designed with padding systems that offer vastly improved comfort, fit and impact protection. Or, agencies that prefer to hang onto their existing helmets can remove the suspension system and replace it with a padding system. The helmets will still be noticeably heavier than their modern counterparts, but they will feel and perform better.

     Wearers will notice a big difference, says Scott Schanaker, a sergeant with the Clark County (Washington) Sheriff's Office and assistant team leader with the SW Washington Regional SWAT.

     Clark County's ballistic helmets are limited to members of SWAT, the riot team, canines assigned to SWAT and hostage negotiators. Right now, some of these folks are wearing the old-style military helmets with suspension systems, while others replaced the suspension system removed with pads.

     "It's like night and day," Schanaker says. "There are no hot spots, the padding conforms to your head and has great shock-absorbing capability. And this is a key thing because you're always getting conked on the head. Now, I smack my head on something and it really dissipates the impact.

     Schanaker also cites comfort as another improvement pads provide. "You have to understand, this helmet is about 7 pounds and when you wear them for any length of time — and it's not uncommon to have this on your head for 20 hours — it can drive you crazy after a while."

     Schanaker says during a shootout in July 2007, he had to wear his helmet — which did not yet have the new pad system — for an extended period of time.

     "My helmet was really bugging me," he says. "I was constantly having to adjust it. You just don't need this distraction. It seems like a small deal, but little things add up over time, and this really takes the stress out of wearing the helmet."

     Los Angeles (California) PD is also undergoing a ballistic helmet upgrade, says Officer Richard Kehr, firearms instructor and training officer in the department's firearms/tactical section. The agency is currently using two styles of PASGT helmets with a harness-style suspension system, but it is looking at padded Advanced Combat Helmets (ACH). Kehr says everyone on the force, top-to-bottom, will move to a padding system over time.

     It's not easy for ballistic helmet manufacturers to meet the somewhat opposing requirements of putting out helmets that are lightweight, comfortable and yet afford a high degree of protection, but they're getting a big assist from technology, says John Raimondi, ballistic product line manager for Mine Safety Appliances Co. (MSA), which is involved with the military's Future Force Warrior Program out of the NATICK Soldier RD&E Center, Natick, Massachusetts.

     "We think there's a lot of innovation with regards to materials," Raimondi says. "I think one of the things we may see as it pertains to law enforcement is more of a combination of ballistic and higher impact resistance. I can see the industry starting to look in this direction."

     He says demand from law enforcement agencies is on the upswing, mainly because of the weapons on the street, something that is causing ballistic helmets to become more of a standard-issue item. Although shrapnel protection is still more of a military concern, Raimondi finds more agencies expressing interest in that aspect.

     Randy Smith, vice president of business development for Max Pro Police & Armor, agrees that demand is up as more agencies look at these as general duty helmets. But he's concerned about the trend mentioned by Raimondi.

     "What I'm seeing as an emerging problem is that some departments are following military specs when they operate in an entirely different arena," he explains. "Police departments should be more concerned with protection from bullets rather than from shrapnel, as you would in the military. What could happen is, because the helmets that meet the strict military specs are much more expensive, agencies may not be able to purchase them. And, you could end up with a heavier and more expensive helmet that really doesn't work as well in the law enforcement environment."

     When it comes to departments selecting the right helmet or padding system, Raimondi keeps his advice straightforward:

     "Comfort, performance and price; these are the three legs of the triangle agencies make decisions on."

     Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, California.

Manufacturers emphasize fit and features

     Max Pro Police & Armor, Mountain Green, Utah.

     A variety of PASGT and MICH-style helmets are available from this manufacturer. They offer a complete line of helmets — from bike to ballistic — for law enforcement, security and military use.

     The company's ballistic helmets are constructed from a glass and aramid fabric composite, says Randy Smith, and are pressed and formed by a special thermoplastic process. The result is a lightweight, comfortable, yet strong helmet, Smith says. Its BA-3AC PASGT helmet weighs 2.5 pounds; the MICH weighs 2.3. Both test to NIJ Level IIIA.

     "This [standard tests to] a 124-grain, 9-mm bullet, going approximately 1,400 feet per second, and also a 240-grain, 44 Magnum going at the same speed," Smith explains.

     The BA-3AC helmet comes with the Comfort System, which consists of removable, washable pads inside the helmet. Smith describes this as a universal fit system, working for all head sizes, whether male or female.

     A new retention system for the ACH MICH helmet offers seven individually adjustable pads constructed of space-age memory foam that conforms to the wearer's head, explains Smith. Both retention systems are designed to absorb or mitigate shock from blows to the head.

     Mine Safety Appliances Co. (MSA), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

     The MSA ForceField Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH) for law enforcement is a commercial version of its military ACH MICH-style helmet, says John Raimondi.

     "This profile allows for more flexibility," says Raimondi. "For example, it can accommodate different shooting and operating positions with minimal interference from the helmet."

     The NIJ Level IIIA-rated helmet — made from woven Kevlar fabric and weighing just over 3 pounds — has a stable suspension and retention system, Raimondi says. It uses a four-point chin strap and incorporates an MSA-exclusive pad system. The pads are designed not to harden at extreme cold temperatures.

     "The pads also provide impact attenuation," he explains. "And because they're movable, they allow for the accommodation of other things, like communication headgear."

     MSA has recently launched a new product — the ACH Accessory Rail Connector — that provides accessory direct-mount for ACH-style ballistic helmets. Tough, fiber-reinforced rails bolt directly to the helmet and hold a slide-and-lock Picatinny adaptor for the mounting of compatible accessories.

     "Right now some folks are taping things like flashlights or cameras to their helmets to free up their hands. Unfortunately, sometimes on a limited basis, your head becomes a load-bearing platform so we thought, let's make this more comfortable and efficient," says Raimondi.

     Oregon Aero, Scappoose, Oregon.

     This company makes shock mitigation pads, harnesses and straps that will fit any ballistic helmet, says Anthony Erickson. They offer a variety of padding systems, three of which are compatible with approximately 95 percent of the ballistic helmets used by law enforcement.

     The systems include: the BLSS Kit Model 45, designed for most helmets other than the PASGT; the BLSS Kit for the PASGT helmet; and the BLU Kit for the MICH helmet. The first two kits include a chin strap harness and integrated nape pad harness system, along with seven removable liner pads. The BLU kit contains the seven liner pads.

     As Erickson explains, a padding system offers benefits such as greater protection from blunt impact, higher level of comfort, greater stability and improved acoustics for better sound location over the old suspension systems.

     However, correct pad thickness is essential or these benefits can be compromised, cautions Linda Miller, technical librarian and customer service rep for the company. She works closely with law enforcement agencies to ensure they end up with the right product for their helmet.

     "We typically like to suggest 3/4-inch pads; that's optimal," Miller says. "But it's all about comfort and performance. You don't want the helmet to fit too tightly. If they remove some pads because the fit is too tight it affects shock mitigation, so we want to work with them to make sure they have the proper pad thickness."

     Super Seer Corp., Evergreen, Colorado.

     Super Seer manufactures law enforcement products, such as helmets and accessories, and is also a dealer for Survival Armor, a ballistic helmets manufacturer.

     The company carries both the PASGT and MICH-style helmets. The PASGT comes in two shell sizes. The helmets are made of Kevlar and are tested NIJ Level IIIA. Kevin Smith explains that both helmets have a frontal padding system (called SKYDEX), a mesh suspension system for the crown, and a ratcheting system at the back that enables the wearer to customize the helmet for better fit, comfort and stability.