For a long time, police officers donned ballistic helmets based on military designs that focused on protecting soldiers from fragmentation and shrapnel. But that was not the protection cops needed. However, officers now can be better equipped in helmets that give them what they need – protection primarily from handgun rounds and blunt trauma. Plus, a new certification standard for ballistic helmets has been developed by the feds.
“Helmets were essentially military frag helmets. Almost all helmets today in the market were not designed for law enforcement, they were designed for the military,” says Scott Wyatt, president of Busch Protective USA. “So, in the realization that those military helmets had made their way into law enforcement and had become the de facto protection standard, it seemed like we were doing our law enforcement officers a bit of disservice.”
Wyatt points out in the 2010s and in recent years, soldiers were coming back from oversees deployment and the medical community realized some suffered from traumatic brain injury, breacher syndrome, and repetitive concussions. As a result, Wyatt started Bush Protective USA to bring new technology into the domestic law enforcement community to provide helmets that better protected against such injuries.
“In the military, those helmets are designed, number one, to stop fragmentation from explosions, IEDs, and shrapnel from grenades,” he explains. “That's not the primary threat in the United States. In U.S. law enforcement the primary threat on helmet systems, and it isn't even actually bullets and frags, is blunt trauma.”
He says an injury to law enforcement officers will more likely come from someone striking them in the head with a bat, or throwing a brick, or having something fall and hit them in the head during an operation. Europeans introduced blunt trauma testing of helmets back in 2009.
The old standard of a helmet being rated to NIJ IIIA here in the U.S. was just about penetration and did not take in some critical elements, according to Wyatt, such as blunt force impact or the material folding over if a helmet was struck by a round near the edge. He points out that folding over and deflection could send a round downward into an officer’s eye socket, neck, or even spine.
Lighter materials started to be used in construction of military helmets, where soldiers may keep the helmet on 12, 14, 16 hours or even longer. According to Wyatt, in law enforcement an officer dons a helmet and wears it for much shorter time periods such as 20, 30 or 45 minutes and at times during barricade situations maybe eight hours or more. With that, reduced weight was not as much of a priority for law enforcement as it was for the military. Again, officers needed better protection against handgun rounds and blunt force attacks instead of fragmentation threats.
Busch Protective USA introduced its first product into the US market in 2015 and one of the first agencies to take a look at the helmet was the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS).
“The marshals took a look at the product and said, ‘Wait a minute. This has blunt trauma protection, because we actually have a layer in there that's designed to protect against blunt trauma. We've had officers who have been injured by blunt trauma, not by bullets.’” says Wyatt.
The marshals service requested to do a test at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETC) and part of that testing involved using video from a slow-motion camera to provide a review of what happened when the helmets were struck by gunfire.
“They shot our helmet, they also shot their existing helmet, and then some other competitors’ helmets with multiple rounds, but the most common round was the 9mm 124 grain NATO round because that's what most people are using to test helmets. When they shot those helmets, what they realized was the ones that they were currently using completely crumpled. They realized that trauma was going to be affecting an officer if they get shot, even if the bullet didn't pass through,” Wyatt explains.
Moving forward, the marshals, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) got together to look at developing a joint helmet protocol, Wyatt explains. Agencies worked in collaboration from 2017 to 2019 to create a new, uniform standard for ballistic helmet testing. The DEA-FBI Ballistic Helmet Testing Protocol V1.0-2019 was established and it the most comprehensive helmet testing protocol in the United States and the first with tangible and definable criteria since the voluntary testing criteria 0106.1 that was published by the NIJ in 1981.
The research in establishing the new standard was led by the FBI and the DEA at the FBI Ballistic Research Facility in Quantico, VA. The DEA-FBI Protocol is now the standard for the FBI, DEA, USMS, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). In addition to standard penetration testing, the research was also specifically designed to limit agent susceptibility during a ballistic event and attention was focused on limiting energy transfer into the head when helmets were struck by 124-grain 9mm rounds.
But the testing for the protocol is far more complex than previous ratings and helmets are put through more rigorous challenges.
“They're chilling them down and shooting, they're heating them up. They're getting them wet, they're getting them dry. They're also now shooting them on the bolts, and any of the hardware,” he points out. “They're starting to shoot on the bolts, because what they realize is a lot of helmet manufacturers have small little bolts. Well, if a round impacts within, some of them, a half an inch to an inch now there's a bolt on the inside of the helmet that now becomes secondary fragmentation, which is exactly what they're trying to stop.”
Wyatt says you now must take into account the entire helmet system and how it will protect an officer in the way that they are doing their work.
“Frankly, I would argue that the DEA/FBI Ballistic Helmet Protocol is the biggest advancement in law enforcement armor safety in more than 20 years. I think it is such a significant improvement over the old standard, and very few law enforcement agencies know about it,” Wyatt explains.
In his role leading Busch Protective USA, Wyatt must be very knowledgeable about ballistic helmets and he has stayed abreast of all the trends promoting safety. But there are various things to consider when you are looking at purchasing new ballistic helmets for a department or agency.
Wyatt suggests you be sure to consider:
1. Level of Protection
Know what level of ballistic protection you are looking for — the old NIJ IIIA test from 1987, the European VPAM-3 from 2009, or perhaps the new DEA-FBI Ballistic Helmet Protocol issued in 2019 by the DOJ. If you are simply asking for the same old product (NIJ IIIA), realize that there is very limited testing, no back face deformation testing, and it is not a NIJ Certified product on the CPL. Does your department require your ballistic protection to be certified? If so, ‘NIJ IIIA’ is merely a penetration test, whereas VPAM-3 and the DEA/FBI Protocol are independently tested and certified by a governing body and offer much more.
Do you anticipate wearing your helmets in any anti-riot or anti-demonstration events? Prior to 2020, many said no, but now almost every law enforcement officer may be called on to help with civil disturbance. If so, make sure your helmet has protection against blunt trauma and the ability to accept a visor and gas mask. It may be needed for more than just ballistic protection, so being modular and flexible can be useful.
3. What Application?
Think about the practical application of the helmets. Keep in mind that an ideal patrol helmet/active shooter helmet is very different than an ideal CQB/SWAT helmet. Many patrol helmets can be shared or assigned to a seat on a vehicle. Making sure those helmets have a universal fit and function is crucial. CQB/SWAT helmets are more purpose designed to integrate with EarPro, NODS, and small team tactics that operate in a small, confined environment. Ensuring maximum protection against handgun rounds, blunt trauma, overpressure from breaching, and the ability to stay in the fight should a ballistic event occur, is critical.
4. Modular Accessories
Ensure the needed modular accessories incorporate into your helmet system. As operators and teams are customizing kit for each mission, it is crucial that you have the ability to incorporate EarPro, ballistic/frag visors, modular mandibles, and various camera/lighting systems with your helmets. Secondly, while most manufacturers can accommodate most EarPro, make sure that you know how the EarPro works on that system and if it is compatible with all cuts. Numerous teams purchase accessories without knowing how they will connect to the head protection system and are disappointed with the end results.
What is the expected law enforcement use/mission and how long are you most likely to be wearing your helmet? The US Military has gone to lighter-weight PE fragmentation helmets due to soldiers wearing for extended time periods, albeit at the cost of protection. In fact, the US military removed the BFD requirements on the new ECH standard in order to get lighter helmets, or they wouldn’t pass. Most LE operations don’t require a helmet to be worn for more than 30-45 min, so why sacrifice protection against blunt trauma and TBI just to save a few ounces? Teams must balance threat levels and protection with weight, cost, availability, and decide what they need to do the job.