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The ABCs of Body Armor

May 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

Proper Fit

The comfort vs. coverage trade-off is a factor that you must take into account when fitting body armor. For example, it may be more comfortable to allow small gaps in the side of your vest because it provides better ventilation. However, those same gaps leave you without protection in very vulnerable areas, which is why an overlap between front and back panels is preferred for seamless protection.

"A proper fit is a 'butt fit,' where both edges meet on the side," says Olsen. "If you have too much of an overlap, because most vest panels overlap from the back to the front you'll actually create a channel that a bullet can follow."

You must determine for yourself what level of comfort vs. coverage that you can tolerate in your body armor.

When getting measured for your body armor, make sure you are receiving a custom vest that will be created exactly to your measurements. This will ensure optimal protection.

Properly fitted body armor enables the wearer to have unrestricted movement. A properly fitted vest should be not only comfortable, but optimally protective. A poorly fitted vest will be uncomfortable and may not provide the protection it should.

Measurements should always be taken while the officer is in uniform, including duty gear, because that's how the vest is going to be worn. If your vest is too long, it could hit your duty belt, which could prevent you from accessing your holster and could cause the vest to bunch up in front, leaving you vulnerable.

It's also important to let the person measuring you know about anything else that could affect the fit of your body armor.

"Female officers, of which there is a growing number, should insist on a body armor panel that is an actual genuine female cut that creates cups to accommodate the female shape rather than the unisex or partial solution," says Olsen. "Female officers should also always tell the measuring person if they're wearing a sports bra, because that changes the measurements and the way the body armor will fit."

Don't be shy about discussing any weight gain, weight loss, or even a recent or upcoming breast reduction or implant surgery. All of these will alter the fit. Any change could keep your vest from providing proper protection.

"All officers, especially if they're in the academy, should let the measuring person know if they are in a muscle-building program," says Olsen. "That will change the fit of the vest."

Even if it's been fitted correctly, like any new garment, body armor has a brief break-in period. If your vest feels somewhat stiff at first, take a few days to wear it off duty or around the house to speed up the break-in process. This will also help you determine if it fits properly.

Most manufacturers provide a limited period of time (typically 30 days) during which the vest can be altered or adjusted to provide a more comfortable fit, at no charge to you. But it's up to you to ensure from the outset that the vest fits properly to avoid long-term issues.

Also, while your vest may soften up a bit and conform more comfortably to your body with regular use, be aware that how it fits after the first few weeks of use is most likely how it will feel months or even years from now (assuming there are no significant weight or body shape changes). Make sure that you are happy with the way your armor fits within the grace period or you may be stuck with it.

Care and Maintenance

Your body armor isn't just another piece of your uniform. It is a critical component of your safety equipment and should be maintained and treated as such. Always make sure to review and closely follow the care instructions provided by your vest's manufacturer to ensure it continues to perform as intended.

Cleaning the Ballistic Panels

Remove the ballistic panels from your carrier before cleaning it. Both components of your vest should be cleaned separately.

Wipe down your vest's protective panels by hand with a damp sponge or soft cloth, using mild soap and cold water. Never fully submerge the panels in water.

Don't machine wash or dry the panels of your body armor. Machine laundering can damage the ballistic material.

Don't use bleach or solvents to clean the panels. Harsh chemicals can degrade the moisture barrier of the panel cover and the all-important ballistic material.

Don't dry-clean the panels.

Don't dry your ballistic panels outdoors in direct sunlight, as ultraviolet exposure can degrade some ballistic materials.

Cleaning the Carrier

Use a cloth or soft bristle brush to remove loose dirt from the carrier's surface and hook-and-loop fasteners.

Close all of the hook-and-loop fasteners before washing the carrier, as it helps prevent wear and lint buildup.

Hand wash or machine wash the carrier in cool or warm water on the gentle cycle using mild soap or detergent.

Don't use bleach, starch, or fabric softeners on the carrier.

Don't dry clean the vest carrier because cleaning solvents can negatively affect some of the components.

Hang the carrier indoors to drip dry after washing, without the ballistic panels inserted. You can also machine dry the carrier at either the Air or lowest temperature setting.

This is very important. When reinserting the ballistic panels into the carrier after cleaning, make sure you do so with the strike face of the ballistic panel facing the proper way. Read the manufacturer's instructions to ensure you do this properly.

Improperly installed ballistic panels or ballistic inserts may not provide the full level of protection the vest is intended to confer because they may not be designed to work unidirectionally.

Storing Your Vest

When storing your vest, lay it flat (the best way to store it) or hang it upside down from the bottom of the carrier. "Hanging vests from their straps stretches out the elastic prematurely," Olsen cautions.

Don't lay the vest out or attempt to dry it in direct sunlight.

Don't hang the vest in such a way that it can stretch the shoulder straps.

Don't fold your vest or lay it on its side in a locker or car trunk.

Don't lay heavy objects on the vest. Th is will cause creasing of the ballistic package.

Vest Inspection and Repairs

Regularly inspect your armor for cuts, tears, and other fabric damage to the carrier and ballistic panels that could compromise the overall integrity and safety of the vest. Make a practice of inspecting your armor when shedding the carrier for washing.

Don't attempt to make repairs to the vest yourself. Instead, return the armor to the manufacturer for repairs or replacement.

If you research the type of vest you want, get the right fit, follow care instructions, and wear your vest on duty without fail, it should provide life-saving protection for years to come.

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