Sweat Suits: Ballistic Vests

The bad news is, regardless of comfort, you need to wear your vest. The good news is, the manufacturers of ballistic vests and other innovators are working on ways to make wearing a vest more bearable.

My department issues our body armor and requires that officers wear it. Our risk management people even tell us we won’t be covered by worker’s compensation if we are shot on duty and we are not wearing our vests. I don’t know, maybe that’s a bean counter scare tactic. But if it is, it’s wasted on me. I’m much more afraid of having a bullet enter my body and perhaps never seeing my wife, daughter, and two boys again than I am of losing financial benefits because I was too stupid to wear my vest.

Some agencies are less strident on this issue and let their officers choose whether to wear a vest. And some of you who have this option choose not to.

Officers who don’t wear vests make all kinds of excuses for hitting the streets without armor. And I’ve heard them all. They say, “It’s uncomfortable.” “It’s too hot.” “It pinches me.” “It doesn’t fit my body type.”

The bad news is, regardless of comfort, you need to wear your vest. The good news is, the manufacturers of ballistic vests and other innovators are working on ways to make wearing a vest more bearable.

Comfort Can Kill

Unfortunately, manufacturers must balance your comfort concerns with ballistic science and materials development. A vest that’s very light and comfortable may not have the stopping power necessary for its designed function, i.e. stopping a bullet and preventing blunt trauma.

This is the paradox that faces soft armor companies. If they make their products so strong that they will stop anything coming your way, they will be too heavy and wearing them will be torture. If they make their armor too easy to wear, odds are it’s going to be less than robust when it comes to catching hot lead.

Consequently, manufacturers try to achieve a happy medium by making their armor light enough to be reasonably comfortable and heavy enough to provide the wearer with adequate protection. Fortunately for us armor-wearing officers, bullet-resistant material developers and vest makers are redefining these parameters with innovative chemistry and design.

Raw Materials

To achieve the almost mutually exclusive goals of comfort and protection, many vest manufacturers are now combining different fabrics and products in layers. For example, one fabric may have outstanding stopping characteristics but fall short in the blunt trauma area. Another may have great blunt trauma protection but offer only mid-level stopping power. This is why many vest makers are combining multiple fibers in their vest designs.

To understand how this works, it’s a good idea to take a look at some of the key players in the soft armor materials market.

The best-known ballistic fiber is, of course, DuPont’s Kevlar, the material that started the whole everyday wearable body armor business. Just as many people use the name “Kleenex” for all “facial tissue” regardless of its brand, “Kevlar” has become synonymous with “soft body armor.” Contrary to popular belief, not all vests are made of Kevlar.

But Kevlar’s importance shouldn’t be understated either. It’s been 30 years since the material was first commercialized in bullet-resistant vests, and vests made of Kevlar fibers have saved the lives of thousands of law enforcement officers.

Today, DuPont continues to improve on the product. Dawn Werry from DuPont Advanced Fiber Systems says, “We regularly engage departments to tell us what improvements they would like to see in body armor, and we use this to guide our development.” Werry adds that for both civilian and military applications, DuPont is considering options beyond fiber content for enhancing body armor comfort. But she would not elaborate.

DuPont supplies its Kevlar fibers to a number of different vest makers. Then the vest makers use it alone or in combination with other fibers to make soft body armor.

Some ballistic fiber makers have even developed techniques for laminating different weaves of their fibers together to improve overall efficiency. These proprietary laminating processes and weave techniques provide increased efficiency in stopping power, blunt trauma mitigation, and less rigidity to aid in wearability.

Dave Hand of Teijin Twaron says the company produces a laminated aramid fiber product that offers high performance with comfort. According to Hand, Teijin Twaron’s Laminated Fabric Technology (LFT) features Twaron microfilament fabrics that offer significant strength and weight reduction. Addressing another comfort concern, Teijin Twaron says it has been able to create a surface for the product that offers a soft textile feel.

Another widely used ballistic fiber is Honeywell’s Spectra. Pound-for-pound, Spectra is 10 times stronger than steel, yet light enough to float. Spectra fiber applications include cut protection, ropes, vehicular and personal armor, and fishing line, as well as various specialty applications.

Like Kevlar and Twaron, Spectra is also being combined with other materials to create fabrics that benefit from the performance characteristics of each fiber. For example, Spectra is one of the key components of Spectra Shield composite fabrics. Spectra Shield technology lays parallel strands of these synthetic fibers side by side and holds them in place with a resin system, creating a unidirectional tape. Two layers are then cross-plied at right angles and fused into a composite structure under heat and pressure. The cross-plied material is then packaged as rolls, ready for shipping to ballistic vest manufacturers.[PAGEBREAK]Vest Innovations

Beyond lighter, tougher, and softer fiber formulations, vest manufacturers are pursuing new designs and new technologies for making their products more comfortable without sacrificing protection.

One of the companies leading the way in this market is Safariland. Now an Armor Holdings company, Safariland has been developing equipment for law enforcement safety for decades, including a varied line of high-quality body armor.

Safariland says its latest vest, the ZERO-G, was designed for increased safety, comfort, and wearability. The ZERO-G looks different and feels different because it is different. Its shape offers enhanced ballistic coverage and the carrier has been simplified for better comfort. To create the ZERO-G, Safariland collected biometric data from hundreds of male and female armor wearers and then put it through careful analysis. The result is a vest with more than 600 unique panel shapes designed to fit virtually any body type. By applying biometrics to panel design Safariland dramatically improved officer arm, shoulder, and upper torso movement.

In addition to its unique panel design, the ZERO-G also features Evaporative Cooling Zones that expose the self-wicking inner liner fabric to the outside air, allowing it to draw excess moisture away from the underarm areas. Such high-tech cooling concepts are becoming more and more common in mass-produced vests.

U.S. Armor is another company that has decided that fit is critical to comfort. The company’s line of vests can be tailored to the wearer in half-inch increments, not 1-inch, like many of its competitors. In addition, U.S. Armor’s concealable High-Velocity model offers up to Level IIIA protection with thin, flexible panels of Gold Flex and Spectra Flex fibers.

Moisture Wicking

First Choice Armor, Second Chance, Point Blank, US Armor, Armor of America, Force One Armor, Reliance Armor Systems and most of the other manufacturers of police protective gear have their own innovative designs for armor carriers. Almost all utilize some sort of high-tech wicking micro-fiber technology. Additionally, most of the manufacturers offer an undergarment that also is constructed of high-tech materials that enhance their carrier’s ability to transport moisture away from the body, thus cooling it.

Moisture-wicking undergarments are also available from a number of other companies that have branched out from the sporting goods market into the law enforcement and military markets. The best known of these brands is Under Armour. Under Armour products were originally developed to be worn under the heavy pads of football players. Then cops discovered Under Armour, and what began nearly a decade earlier as a highly efficient undershirt for equipment sports players became a must-have for cops.

There are two reasons why Under Armour is so popular with police. The shirt is skintight, so it doesn’t slip around under your vest like an old cotton T. And it has been engineered to make you cooler. Under Armour’s micro-fiber fabric wicks moisture away from your skin.

DuPont’s CoolMax is another sweat-fighting fabric. Composed of DuPont’s proprietary Dacron fibers, CoolMax moves sweat away from the body to the outer layer of the fabric, where it dries fast, twice as fast as a cotton T. Better evaporation means you spend less energy to cool your body, which increases your performance and endurance. It also translates into more comfort.

TRANSPOR is another high-tech, moisture-wicking material that is being used in vest carriers and undergarments. Essentially a system of two-ply fabrics, TRANSPOR draws moisture vertically through a dry layer without absorption, and then spreads it horizontally across the wicking layer where it can evaporate.

TRANSPOR says its Moisture Management Technology makes wicking work better by keeping the damp wicking yarns away from your skin. Perspiration involves vapor first and then liquid. TRANSPOR handles both. Because the yarns in the TRANSPOR dry layer are water repellent, vapor won’t cause the yarns to swell and close up the spaces in the fabric. The vapor passes through the TRANSPOR dry layer, and you stay dry.

High-Tech Foam

PACA Body Armor has taken a slightly different approach. The company is the exclusive U.S. distributor of Armor Ice, a thermal management technology that keeps you comfortable while wearing body armor.

Unlike moisture-wicking fabrics that transfer moisture away from your skin, Armor Ice turns your armor into an active cooling system. Armor Ice is a microencapsulated, temperature-seeking foam that was developed for space suits. It is laboratory tested to keep you 4 to 5 degrees cooler for extended periods of time. And any cop knows that 4 to 5 degrees of cooling can really make a difference when you’re wearing body armor in August and it’s more than 90 degrees in the shade.

Phasers on Cool

Another type of under vest cooling system that’s gaining popularity is phase change material. Available from Torrance, Calif.-based Cool Sport, these cooling vests work as simply as putting an ice cube on your forehead. Using cooling packs containing phase change material, the vest maintains a comfortable and constant 62-degree Fahrenheit temperature against the body.

They’re also much easier to use than ice cubes or even freezer packs. Unlike conventional ice and gel packs, which take hours to freeze in a freezer, Cool Sport’s Cool Packs recharge in ice water within 20 minutes. They may also be recharged in a refrigerator. Many users keep a spare set of charged, individual Cool Packs on hand in a portable cooler for quick and easy changeovers in the field.

The bottom line is that ballistic vests are becoming more comfortable and manufacturers are working hard to take away all of your excuses for not wearing them. Maybe some day putting on your body armor will cause you no more discomfort than slipping into your favorite shirt.

Air Conditioning

Cops are very innovative creatures. Don't believe me? Then talk to Ron Baldal.

An officer with the San Jose (Calif.) Police Department, Baldal was sick and tired of being hot under his department-issued ballistic vest. But unlike a lot of cops he did more than grouse.

Baldal's dad was in the plastics industry. So, necessity being the mother of invention, Baldal, with the help of his "in-house" plastics expert came up with CoolCop.

CoolCop is essentially a way to air condition your body under your vest. It attaches to your vehicle's air conditioner vent and, through a hose, directs cool, dry air behind your vest. The CoolCop hose connects to an unused dashboard air conditioning vent. You then close some of the remaining vents to regulate the cooling and insert the vest attachment tube between your ballistic vest and T-shirt to blast cold air behind your vest. CoolCop fits the vents of most common police vehicles, including the Ford Crown Victoria, Chevy Impala, Chevy Caprice, Chevy Tahoe, Ford Expedition, Ford Trucks, and even the Hummer.

Sgt. Dave Douglas is a 25-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department and a POLICE magazine contributing editor.

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