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: