Body Bunker Basics

Nov. 12, 2006
Handheld portable bullet-resistant shield designed to augment an officer's vest.

A Body bunker basics Firearms tactics body bunker, often called a ballistic shield or ballistic blanket, is a handheld portable bullet-resistant shield designed to augment an officer's vest. Body bunkers come in various shapes, sizes and levels of protection in two categories. There are rigid body bunkers, which resemble the shields carried by Roman foot soldiers, and flexible body bunkers, which essentially are ballistic blankets with handles.

When most law enforcement professionals think of body bunkers, they think of warrant service, tactical teams, dynamic entries, special enforcement and major incidents. Actually, the most logical application of a body bunker is at the patrol level.

Every patrol car needs a ballistic shield. Because the patrol officer is the first responder he is the most likely to arrive while an incident is still in progress. The best deployment of the product is where it will do the most good. It is the patrol officer who establishes and maintains perimeters, enters scenes with sketchy information and delivers intelligence so arriving officers can arrange their assets. The patrol officer is the one who makes contact with the suspect who has not yet been identified.

Ballistic products are constructed of layers of fiber or material that efficiently disperses the energy of a bullet. Although the majority of ballistic products built for the patrol officer are Level IIIA, they can be purchased in almost every level of ballistic protection. Level IIIA products are generally effective against standard law enforcement handgun calibers. Some companies have created additional pockets for additional plates and layers that raise the protection level. Combined with the officer's vest, the body bunker/vest equipped officer has an increased margin of protection.

When choosing a body bunker style, agencies must consider whether to choose a rigid or flexible body bunker.

Rigid body bunkers can be propped into a position or set down where a flexible shield would have to be held in place. The rigid bunker can be especially handy when two officers, instead of one, are required to stabilize and rescue a casualty in a hostile area.

Aside from ballistic protection, rigid bunkers may be utilized for other uses. If first responders do not have their (nonballistic) riot shields on hand, a rigid bunker will work in their stead. Another alternative use is that some rigid shields can be used for climbing by leaning the shield against a wall and using the crossbar as a step to get over a fence.

The flexible body bunker is perfect for vehicular use. Most officers have enough training and experience to understand that only a small percentage of a vehicle is cover — the rest is merely concealment. A patrol car's passenger compartment is mostly vinyl and plastic surrounded by sheet metal. Most studies will include that the car body is not effective against bullets, even bullets fired from pocket guns.

In high-risk stops where it is believed that one or more subjects in the vehicle are armed, the flexible ballistic shield is ideal. of Austin, Texas, recognized this need for vehicle use and created a flexible shield that officers can sit on in their patrol car. When it comes time to deploy, the officer simply picks the flexible armor off the seat and holds it up.

It is common for officers to stand in their vehicle's open doorway during a traffic stop. The patrol car should be idling while offset from the suspect car. Ideally, the officer has placed his engine block between himself and the suspect vehicle. The engine block of a patrol car is cover.

The primary vehicle in a high-risk stop is strategically placed to protect the primary officer from hazards in the suspect vehicle and the area of the traffic stop from traffic hazards. The arriving cover officer, however, may be at a loss of ballistic protection and create a strategic hazard for pursuit when and if needed.

Using a body bunker, the cover officer can be in the doorway of his idling vehicle or move up to the primary officer's passenger door. If the situation deteriorates, there is an officer inches away from an idling car to get in pursuit.

Flexible body bunkers are quiet and often half the weight of rigid ones. A flexible shield moving down a hallway or alongside of a building will yield less of the telltale scraping sound. Additionally, one could not take a rigid shield into the crawl space or attic area where the tactical blanket is perfect.


Within reason, the closer an officer can hold a ballistic shield to the body, the smaller the target he presents. Most officers will find that propping the non-firing elbow against the body with a hand holding the shield, fist up, will maintain the proper distance of shield-to-body. The firing hand goes around the front, exposing as little of the arm as possible. A body bunker's viewing port, if available, should be used to aim the weapon. If it does not have a port, it is important to practice exposing as little as possible while sighting a weapon. Using a light and laser will not only increase the accuracy of a one-handed, bunkered officer, it will also give the officer ability to switch hands. Users may have to employ strategies to prevent fatigue after a few minutes of searching and moving.

Officers must override their tendency to exposing too much when looking around or over the shield. This may afford a better field of vision during training but what is done in training is what is instinctively done in an emergency situation.

The person carrying the body bunker should have a hydration pack with hands-free drinking capability. If the incident allows for preplanning on the fly, officers using ballistic shields should deploy with neck straps so they occasionally can rest their arms.

Work perimeter

Officers maintaining a perimeter in an active incident can carry their ballistic shield and stand behind something of known ballistic resistance. This is a much better alternative than standing behind a man-made structure that looks sturdy but might only be sheetrock and studs.

If the incident deteriorates, the perimeter officer can maintain the position longer and share intelligence longer.

Evacuate an area

Imagine a barricaded suspect in an apartment complex. Patrol officers and support staff are directed to immediately evacuate residents in nearby apartments. Knocking on the front door of an apartment near a barricaded suspect many draw the suspect's attention. Officers armed with a portable barrier can efficiently usher citizens to safety.

Active shooter incident

An active shooter incident is defined as an incident where an armed suspect is currently and actively causing great bodily injury and death and any portion of the incident is not contained. In an active shooter incident, if somebody doesn't do something quickly, things will go from bad to worse.

The "contain and wait" philosophy may not be appropriate for an active shooter incident. In fact, officers will rarely have the luxury to "wait." In order to prevent further harm, officers at the scene of an active shooter must quickly assess what they have at hand, form an ad hoc team and put their training to test. That is, police officers head toward danger. This goes against the grain of human instinct and usually against the flow of traffic trying to escape the danger.

The response to an active shooter incident is different in many ways. Officers have training on how to respond to an emergency call where a victim has a traumatic injury. They know how to stabilize the situation enough to get the victim out of danger and get them the medical attention they need. In an active shooter incident, they may have to communicate the location of injured people and move on.

The "ad hoc team" consists of whatever backup arrives — patrol officers, detectives, deputies, SRO's, fish and game officers or other law enforcement in the response area. This "team" must quickly form, communicate and maneuver. Some of them may not use or carry a protective vest in the course of their duties.

Going against the flow of traffic is an important aspect of ballistic shield use. Officers approaching a critical area must quickly pat-down everyone they encounter and try to gather intel about the situation. Suspects wishing to escape during the confusion could act like traumatized victims. In an active shooter incident, anyone at the scene should be confronted with the ballistic shield first.

The body bunker is not for every incident but it is an essential tool in the law enforcement toolbox. Agencies should consider putting one in every patrol car.

Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches Administration of Justice at Hartnell College in Salinas, California.

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