In 2003, the reliability of the fibers used in bullet-resistant vests was tarnished by a fiber called Zylon, which was found to degrade rapidly and offer less protection to officers over time. However, that black mark against the industry led to fiber innovations as well as a more stringent NIJ testing standard.
Developments by companies such as DSM Dyneema and Teijin Aramid's Twaron help bullet-resistant vest manufacturers create vests with weights approaching levels attainable under the previous NIJ standard. "At least with Level II vests, we've been able to get weights back down to where they were under the old NIJ standard," says Davis, noting Armor Express recently released a vest weighing .81 pounds per square foot and meeting the requirements of NIJ Standard-0101.06.
"Typically we are in sub-one-pound-per-square-foot range," adds Smith. "There are a lot of great packages on the market at one to 1½ pounds per square foot. Some are as low as .76 pounds per square foot. That's a huge improvement from five years ago. We’ve been able to remove weight pretty quickly and we expect that trend to continue as fiber manufacturers bring to market stronger, more durable fibers."
Research and development at the manufacturer's level plays an important role and today’s bullet-resistant vest manufacturers push significant dollars into this. "We are constantly evaluating new materials that can help make the armor lighter and more comfortable without sacrificing ballistic protection," Davis says.
The NIJ Standard-0101.06 requires vests to meet more stringent testing requirements than ever before including:
• Increased test velocities for Types IIA, II, and IIIA vests.
• An increase in the number of shots under which each vest must perform reliably. That number is nearly 90% higher than it was under the previous standard.
• Test panels must pass a submersion test where the vests must be fully immersed in 70-degree water for 30 minutes prior to being tested.
• A requirement for the vest to perform reliably after an accelerated aging process.
• A more aggressive shot pattern.
• Heat-sealed, rather than stitched, panels inside a water-resistant fabric. "This ensures panels offer a high level of moisture resistance," says Smith. "Zylon had a degradation in performance as it took on moisture. That moisture piece has been controlled by what we package the ballistic panels in."
Manufacturers must meet these requirements while also meeting officers' needs for comfort.
It's a balancing act Smith believes is only achievable by pushing past NIJ requirements. "NIJ certification is one requirement every body armor manufacturer has to meet," he says. "But products meeting FBI and DEA bullet-resistant vest standards ensure that panels that are lighter and more flexible are also able to stop a faster round with less backface deformation and ultimately less injury and risk to an officer."
Keep it Cool
One area that all manufacturers continue to struggle with, as the earlier example illustrates, is heat. Officers often forgo wearing their vests when the weather is hot, stating their vests are simply too uncomfortable to wear.
But there is one development on the horizon hoping to change that.
Empa, working with Swiss federal research lab Unico Swisstex, has prototyped a Kevlar vest with a cooling system in it. The bullet-resistant vest has an integrated cooling system made up of coolpads filled with water and a miniature fan that blows air through a fabric spacer behind the pads, cooling down anything around it—in this case, the bullet-resistant vest and the person wearing it.
Creating such a vest presented challenges, one of which was developing a fabric spacer that was stable under pressure, flexible and soft, and provided little resistance to airflow. Because no fans existed that were small enough to be built into a vest, Empa researchers developed miniaturized fans that could be recharged as needed.
"The fans had to be extremely small with very low power consumption and an air stream that provided good ventilation," explains Empa researcher Markus Weder.
The original coolpads used in the vest also had a problem: They needed to be refilled with water every hour. Empa developed a portable filling station that can be attached to the vest with a quick-release fastener.
"The original coolpad membrane, when filled with water, could cool for about an hour," explains Weder. "But for law enforcement applications, that timeframe was too short. We developed a flexible bottle in the vest that can be filled with water and lengthen the cooling time to three hours."
Zurich City police officers tested the vest in 2011. "The police who tested it have been very pleased with it and said it offered quite a bit of cooling efficiency," says Weder, who notes with testing under their belts, Unico plans to bring the vest to market at the end of 2012. "Unico will feed a small number of vests into the market and when they get feedback from the marketplace they plan to do a greater release," Weder says.
Canterbury sees the development as positive, stating, "The biggest obstacle to wearing a vest is the heat. As armor improves and the weight goes down, wear rates go up."
And as wear rates increase so does officer safety. A protected officer is one who goes home at night, not one who pays the ultimate sacrifice as he or she serves and protects.
Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.
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