When you strap on your body armor before going out on your shift, you are accepting by faith that this uncomfortable garment can protect you from certain ballistic hazards. There are two reasons that you have this faith: You know that similar armor has saved the lives of many of your brothers and sisters and the stuff is certified by the government.
Almost every model of law enforcement body armor sold to American officers is certified by private labs that follow strict standards set by the National Institute of Justice. To have its armor certified as Level IIA, Level II, or Level IIIA (see "What Will It Stop When It's New?" on page 48), a manufacturer sends the vest to an independent lab and guys in white coats do their best to punch holes in it with specific pistol rounds. Then they certify it according to its ballistic resistance.
This system has been in place for decades, and it is, as many manufacturers will tell you, a voluntary program. But here's the rub: "This is a voluntary standard but if we want to produce vests for our customer, the customer demands that we pass to this standard," says Bob Weber, director of ballistic development for Safariland Products Group.
Last summer after years of research, the NIJ issued its sixth set of certification standards for law enforcement body armor. The NIJ says the new standards will make officers safer and most manufacturers agree that the new more stringent standards will make vests more bullet resistant. That's the good news. The bad news is that it will likely make armor even less pleasant to wear and more costly to buy.
Vests certified under the 06 standard are shot a lot more than vests certified under the 05 standard. Manufacturers also have to submit more sizes of vests to the labs and both male and female models, if they make female models.
The most important test required in the new certification process is the P-BFS in government speak. In English, this is a perforation and blunt trauma test. The P-BFS requires that the vest be strapped to a tray of oil-based modeling clay and then shot. After each shot, the panel is removed from the tray and the depth of the impression in the clay caused by impact of the bullet is measured. A vest passes if the dent in the clay is less than 44 millimeters deep.
This test was part of the earlier certification standard, but now the ballistic panels are shot closer to their edges. Edge shots result in more blunt trauma than shots into the center of the panel. So manufacturers are stiffening the backs of their ballistic panels to compensate.
Burned by the 2003 Zylon debacle, the NIJ has also added two major environmental stressors to the testing regime. We'll discuss these tests in detail later in this article.