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.
[PAGEBREAK]What Does This Mean to You?
Here's why the changes in the certification testing are important to you as working law enforcement officers.
- They will make you safer.
- They will make your vest heavier (how much is the question).
- They will make your vest more expensive.
Stopping Special Threats
Vests certified under the 06 standard are irrefutably more bullet resistant than comparable vests certified under earlier standards.
"I believe the new standard definitely produces a much safer product for my law enforcement customer," says Safariland's Weber.
"The bottom line is that the 06 standard-certified vests have more robust ballistic packages that can stop more rounds," agrees Michael Foreman, senior vice president of Point Blank Solutions Inc.
There's a very simple reason why 06 standard vests have to be so much more robust than the 05 standard vests: They get shot a lot more in the certification process. "We've gone from 48 shots to more than 390 total shots," Safariland's Weber says.
Heavier and Stiffer
Greater protection means more weight and bulk and rigidity and other things that make a 12-hour shift in concealable body armor such an unpleasant experience.
Designers at the body armor manufacturing companies are very well aware of your need for both comfort and protection. They know that your Holy Grail for body armor is something as comfortable as a T-shirt that will protect you from rifle fire. But such a wonder fabric does not presently exist, so the designers are working hard to minimize the weight they will have to add to meet the 06 standard.
For example, Point Blank and P.A.C.A. (two divisions of the same company) are using Kevlar XP, geometric structures made of Kevlar, to minimize the additional weight in their 06 vests. Foreman says the result is a nominal increase in weight.
And Mike Slate, director of engineering and development for Protective Products International, says his company is doing everything it can to make the 06 vests as comfortable as its older models. But he admits that the 06 vests are going to be a little heavier than last year's model. "We expect to see a five to 10 percent increase in weight. So we're trying to make the vests more flexible," he says.
Slate adds that he's working hard to cut weight and make PPI's next generation of vests more comfortable and still capable of passing the 06 standard.
Safariland's Weber agrees that research and development are the keys to a new generation of lighter, comfortable, and safer vests. "Yes, our 06 vests are slightly heavier and they may feel a little different than what we used to build, but that's where competition and R&D comes in and that cycle is occurring now."
If you want to be more comfortable while you are waiting on the next generation of more comfortable vests, the manufacturers have an interesting suggestion: Consider wearing a Level II vest.
Understandably, police officers and police agencies tend to buy Level IIIA vests sacrificing comfort for protection. But the 06 standard vests are so much better at stopping rounds that a Level II may be a better choice.
"Guys have been conditioned over the last decade or so to think they need Level IIIA, but that's not necessarily the case," says First Choice Armor's Brian Wong. "We're shooting our Level II vest with a .357 SIG at 1,600 to 1,700 feet per second."
Foreman says Point Blank's 06 standard Level II packages are also offering much more protection than their forerunners. "With the 06 standard vests we are seeing significant increases in V50 (the velocity at which half of the test rounds penetrate the armor) performance in our Level II vest," says Point Blank's Foreman. "We've shot them with all common threat rounds, and we're seeing them stop rounds that were historically shot in Level IIIA vests."
Of course, the 06 standard Level IIIA vests are even tougher than the Level II packages but you pay for the protection in weight and rigidity. "They're not as soft as they used to be," Foreman admits. "But we're seeing 15 percent less backface deformation than from a comparable Level IIIA vest certified under the 05 standard."
[PAGEBREAK]The Price You Pay
Unfortunately, the same things that make the 06 standard vests so bullet resistant also make them more costly.
More material goes into these vests. More design time is spent trying to make them both wearable and capable of passing the new requirements, and the cost of the certification process (paid by the manufacturer) itself has risen from roughly $4,000 per ballistic package to as much as $30,000.
And yes, that price will be passed on to customers.
"If the certification means that the cost of the fabric is more, then we will have to charge more," says Dan Johnson, national sales manager of Armor Express. "We have to pull a profit, or we'll go under. It's as simple as that."
Point Blank's Foreman says the company is doing everything it can to hold the line. "I thought we'd be making stuff 20 percent more expensive, but I've been pleasantly surprised."
Foreman also wonders how much the market can bear. "Potentially it will cost more to [make the 06 standard vests], but we as manufacturers have to recognize the economic times we're in. Here at Point Blank we have had little or no price increase on our 06 armor."
The 06 standard will make vests less comfortable and more expensive. And that begs some questions: Will fewer officers wear vests on duty because they are heavier or stiffer or both? Will fewer officers have access to in-warranty vests because of budget concerns? Is the cost worth the benefit? Only time will tell.
For now, the question that some industry experts are raising about this new NIJ standard - at least off the record - is one of necessity: Was it really necessary to change the standard?
The NIJ would not submit to a phone interview but in an e-mail it cited the Zylon debacle as the reason for amending its 2005 Interim Standard.
But the Zylon issue was actually addressed when that fiber was decertified by the NIJ in 2005. And the two elements of the 06 standard certification process that actually address the environmental wear that led to the Zylon tragedies are the most problematic aspects of the new standard.
In order to receive certification under the 06 standard, a ballistic package now has to be heat sealed. Here's why: Instead of misting the vest with water, which was the procedure in the 05 Interim Standard, the new standard specifies that the vest must be submerged in water for 30 minutes and then shot. This is a viable concern for officers who work on the water, but many in the industry question whether it's necessary for all law enforcement vests. After all, there are numerous ballistic vests on the market that are made specifically for operations on and around water.
The other environmental test in the 06 standard is even more problematic. It specifies that each certified vest must be tumbled in an industrial machine 72,000 times while being exposed to heat and humidity. The idea is to simulate wear and aging of the ballistic material.
Which is not a bad idea. Unfortunately, the tumble test's validity is sketchy. Regardless of what material is normally used to carry the ballistic panels (for example, ripstop nylon), the vest must be submitted to the lab in a cotton or poly-cotton carrier. The reason for this requirement is simple: nylon and some of the other synthetics used for vest carriers do bad things when exposed to the heat used in the test. So the test doesn't even evaluate the wear of an actual vest. That in the eyes of some experts makes it invalid.
The tumbling test is also problematic because 72,000 tumbles is a lot of tumbles, about 10 days worth. So the testing process takes a lot longer than it used to. Some might say that's no big deal, it's just 10 days. But remember manufacturers have multiple models of vests to test and each model must be tested in multiple sizes. Oh, and there are only so many of these machines. If you're wondering why your favorite vest company hasn't certified under 06 yet, the tumble test is likely your answer. It's also one of the reasons why there are now eight labs performing this certification when there used to be two.
And even 72,000 tumbles was something of a compromise. Jeff Fackler of DuPont Protection Technologies says the maker of Kevlar was consulted by the NIJ regarding the wear testing and at one time the protocol called for months of tumbling per vest. That would have been a nightmare for the industry.
"If people had to wait several months to get a certification, then the objective of getting good quality body armor that meets the standards and provides high levels of protection wouldn't have been met," Fackler says. "The certification process needs to be efficient."
But does 72,000 tumbles really simulate the wear of ballistic panels on duty?
Safariland purchased one of the $30,000 tumbling machines for its in-house lab as part of a recent $500,000 investment in testing and research. And Weber says 72,000 tumbles in the machine results in a wear level about the same as a five-year-old vest that has been worn but meticulously maintained.
Weber has good reason to know how worn vests perform. Since it was surprised by the effects of wear on its Zylon vests, Safariland has been collecting used vests from its customers and testing them.
"We shoot those vests and compare the results to the V50 performance they had during certification," Weber says. "We do these comparisons to see if the material is degrading. We've been doing that for more than four years and have more than 1,300 test samples."
[PAGEBREAK]Wear Your Current Vest
The verdict is out on whether the 06 standard was necessary because of increased threats to law enforcement or if it was just a matter of the NIJ flexing the regulatory muscle that it gained after the Zylon ban.
One thing is certain: Neither the NIJ nor the vest manufacturers believe that there is anything wrong with your current non-Zylon vest.
The first page of the NIJ 06 standard manual says in effect that vests certified under the 05 and 04 standard are safe. Note: Any vest certified under the 03 standard would be way out of warranty at this point.
"There is absolutely nothing wrong with your current vest," Georg Olsen of U.S. Armor said when asked if officers should ditch their current vest in favor of 06 certified models.
Point Blank's Foreman also says that officers should have confidence in their current in-warranty vests. "Other than Zylon, we as an industry have never had a ballistic failure in 36 years," he says.
So you should keep wearing your current vest. Which is good news for thousands of officers and hundreds of agencies facing budgetary restrictions.
But the new standard does present dilemmas for some agencies. For example, there are agencies that specify through policy that their officers must wear the latest NIJ-certified armor. So they will either have to amend their policies or buy new stuff.
Agencies with more flexibility are taking a wait and see attitude. Some are issuing the 06 vests only to their new officers. Others are deciding to stay with the 05 vests as long as possible to stretch their budgets.
"We've seen some people hurrying up their orders to buy 05 vests now because they know the 06-certified vests will be more expensive," says Armor Express' Johnson.
Weber believes the decision to buy 05 vests over 06 models to save a few dollars may be foolhardy. "The threat has changed and the customer wants and needs more protection," he explains.
Foreman adds: "Officers are in more danger. We have had 42 saves in the past 43 months. That's why our customers need more robust body armor."
Also Weber has a few words for those who say the new NIJ standard is unnecessary and will make vests heavier and more uncomfortable. "Testing is now more severe to give the customer the confidence that when he's wearing my vest, a vest that's as thin and light as I can make it, that it will do what I say it will do."
06-Certified Vest Availability
Companies Now Offering NIJ O6-Certified Armor:
Companies with Certification Pending at Presstime: