Manufacturers meet the growing demand for better women's body armor with new designs, new technology and a unique line of new products
When BAE Systems set out to build better female body armor, the first thing the company did was create another, entirely new, company.
"We wanted a company where we could put 100 percent of our people and financial resources into research and development, into building the body armor from the ground up, for the woman," says Angela Milligan, brand manager for SAVVY Armor.
Devoting an entire company to one product might seem to be an unusual business strategy in this multi-tasking age of diversification, but Milligan says the growing number of women in policing makes it a good decision for SAVVY. Overall, she notes, law enforcement in the United States is already 15 percent female, and that figure runs as high as 25 percent in some cities. Dedicating a brand to female armor, and only female armor, Milligan says, "makes a difference in the designs and in how monies are allocated."
As a result, SAVVY did not attempt to revamp existing body armor products or look for new ways to turn men's vests into women's. "It wasn't about giving women something we already had," she says. "It was about providing them with what they told us they needed." The company's research and development team conducted hundreds of interviews with female officers to get an understanding of what on-the-job women really wanted from their body armor. Then SAVVY designers headed to the drawing board to create the company's own brand of brand-new body armor for women.
The most important information to come from the interviewing process was the fact that many female police officers reported having significant problems with coverage and comfort when it came to their tactical and concealable vests. Women felt "squashed" or "smashed" by the flat fronts of vests that had been designed for men. Alternately, vests that were manufactured with extra room in the front to accommodate women's chests and breasts sometimes revealed gaps in the ballistic fabric on the sides of the vests or under the officers' arms; as a result, women reported that their vests were either uncomfortable, didn't provide proper coverage of their torsos, or both.
Experts have long known that discomfort isn't the only problem caused by wearing a body armor vest that is too flat or snug in front. Wearing an ill-fitting vest for extended periods of time, such as the eight- to 10-hour shifts required by law enforcement, can actually pose a variety of unique health hazards if the wearer is female. Some women patrol officers have reported suffering intense pain after wearing vests for the entirety of their shifts, and in some cases it turned out the pain was caused by irreparable tears to a major ligament within the breast called the Cooper's ligament.
To address women's fit issues, SAVVY designers worked with three different shaping technologies that could be used in the design and manufacture of body armor vests. One of them — radial offset pleating technology — is being used in vests that SAVVY has available now; it was the inaugural technology of the company's October 2007 product-line launch. "The pleats go in a radial all the way from the bust to the bottom of the vest," explains Milligan. "This helps to form a true bust cup, which provides support, and allows for less bulk in the side areas."
In all, SAVVY's current line includes three concealable vests, a tactical vest, seven external carriers, and three specialized vests — one designed for corrections — an ultra-concealable vest for undercover assignments, and a vest for bicycle, personal transport vehicle and motorcycle officers.