Wear your vest! Why you should listen to that little voice

MYTH: If a vest can stop a bullet, it can stop a spike.

FACT: Most ballistic vests can slow down unconventional knives to conventional knives, but it won’t stop it from penetrating.

By Rachel Fretz, Corrections1 editor

When 22-year-old corrections officer Jose Rivera was stabbed to death at California's Atwater Penitentiary last June, officials at the federal Bureau of Prisons moved to equip correctional personnel at U.S. penitentiaries with stab-resistant safety vests.

At the time, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called the option a "no brainer" – something "pretty hard to argue with."

And while the prospect of wearing body armor may be a no-brainer in theory, not all departments, or correctional personnel, have signed on. Citing the prohibitive cost, or the usual complaints — It’s too hot! it’s too binding! I can’t move in it — the body armor Zeitgeist seems to linger overhead like a raincloud best heeded, but too often ignored.

Why wear it?
There are an estimated 550,000 correctional officers currently working in the United States. The "wear rate" of body armor in corrections is significantly lower than the rest of law enforcement.

Jeff Fackler, Global Marketing Manager Body Armor, DuPont Personal Protection, attributes this to two things: limited availability and a lack of understanding of the extent of protection body armor offers.

"This is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country,” Fackler said. “But the good news is there is protection available to correctional officers, whether they're in the yard or doing cell extractions."

There are two major categories of body armor available on the market. The first offers protection from life-threatening assaults (being stabbed, having your weapon taken from you or being shot). The second category is personal protection garments. These protect you from illnesses or disease.

In a corrections environment, viruses, infections and body fluids can present significant biohazards. Manufacturers make a variety of protective garments that provide a barrier to blood, body fluid, viral contaminants. One of Dupont's most popular garments is the coverall, which zips over uniforms and on top body armor. The seams of these garments are taped, and construction is strong, offering protection from the most immediate dangers, spit, urine and blood (hepatitis).

However, body armor also protects your body from blunt trauma by displacing a punch, for example, or protecting your chest if you fall while climbing in a window or running up a stairwell. A vest also augments your physical stature and makes you look bigger – the easiest way to gain voluntary compliance.

Comfort and fit
Wearing a vest takes some getting used to. Dave Young, C1 columnist and Director of Training for Redman Training Gear, has fielded complaints about comfort time and time again.

5 tips for purchasing body armor:

Assess your threat level. What are the threats you’re likely to be confronted with? If come in contact with shanks all the time, but no conventional weapons, skip the hybrid. Assess your daily wear.

How often will you be required to wear the body armor? Every day? Twice a week? The more you wear it, the more comfortable, and possibly lightweight you’ll want it to be.

Assess the longevity of the vest. Most vests have a 5-year shelf life. If you buy a vest that only has a 2-year shelf life and only spend $150, you’re going to end up spending 300 or 400 dollars down the road anyway; might as well make the investment up front.

Check the manufactures’ warranty/exchange program. Most manufactures offer deals in exchange for wearing their vest for X number of years. This can mean big savings down the line.

Don’t go by appearance. Resist the temptation to point at a catalog and say, “I want that vest.” You’ll need to get it fitted in person. Most credible manufactures will send a rep to your agency to show you the different carriers, and allow you to T&E the various vests. Trade shows are also a great place to do this. 

“You’ll have to acclimate to the added weight and heat,” he said, adding that the type of carrier that you use can make a big difference.

Nylon (either solid or mesh) is the lightest option. Nylon displaces heat better than a cloth (cotton) carrier because it doesn’t retain water, whereas cloth retains moisture and odor, and makes you sweat more. Cloth also tends to discolor.

Finding the right size is critical.

“If you find that your vest chafes your armpits or rubs your neck, it’s probably the wrong size,” Young said.

Weight gain is a frequent culprit of ill-fitting vests. If you do lose or gain weight, Young said. you’ll have to be refitted, and might even need a whole new body panel or carrier.

A proper fitting should be done by a representative from a body armor company, and will take the following measurements into account: shoulder-to-shoulder; shoulder blade to shoulder blade; center of chest to belly button; center of back to the bottom of your back where your belt goes. (For more on fitting, see Dave Young’s 5 tips for purchasing body armor, right.)

Young cautions against making assumptions about size. Bigger is not better – or safer.

"If you wear an XXL t-shirt, that won’t necessarily correspond to an XXL vest,” he said. “It's tempting to get it too big, thinking it’ll give you more protection, but that’s a myth; it'll just make you uncomfortable.”

Once you have the body armor, you need to train with it. Body armor tends to restrict your movement, so wear it while practicing all the things you repeatedly do, like handcuffing a suspect, drawing a baton, deploying a baton – even punching or grappling with a suspect.

In his water safety class, Dave Young jokes, “You’ll get trained by your agency in suits and goggles, but that'll only work if you're attacked at Water World.”

And as obvious as it sounds, you’ll only acclimate to the vest if you wear it. And the quicker you acclimatize, the sooner it’ll feel comfortable.

Today, almost all body armor manufacturers make shank-resistant armor, thanks to a patented Dupont, technology.

Unique correctional threats
In mid-1990s, wardens from several states approached DuPont and asked them to develop the technology for correctional officers. At that point, DuPont Kevlar had been used for a long time, but this technology wasn’t sufficient in a correctional environment because it didn’t offer protection from "sharp-point objects" — homemade shanks.

"No product can offer protection from every weapon," Feckler said, who emphasized that the correctional vest available on the market today is not able to protect from commercially made knives.

The leading correctional vests of today feature Dupont’s patented ice-pick or shank or spike or handmade knife-resistant material.

Minshon Chiou, Research Fellow at DuPont Personal Protection, developed Kevlar® Correctional™ technology using a unique combination of a technology he developed along with Kevlar fiber, which yielded a very lightweight and comfortable, yet concealable and effective anti-spike vest.

"The material traps and dissipates the energy of the spike throughout the neighboring fibers,” said Chiou, who is also the technology's patent holder. “It’s also cut-slash resistant against something like a razor blade."

Dupont licensed this technology through the industry manufacturers who've developed it into offerings for correctional personnel. Also, Kevlar material is inherently flame resistant, which offers a significant advantage during certain events, like a riot, where COs might encounter flames or a thermal threat.

Ballistic threat protection
If you're a SWAT, tactical or transport officer shopping for a ballistic vest, the threat level that your vest is certified to protect should be based on the level of firearms that you are carrying. So, if you’re carrying a .45-caliber pistol, your vest needs to be at the threat level to protect itself from a .45.

Fabric made of Dupont material typically had good bullet-stopping power, but over the years, threats to law enforcement officers, particularly from a ballistic standpoint, have increased and intensified. Answering this call, Dupont introduced Kevlar XP in June of this year.

"During a ballistic event, your protection needs to do two things," Fackler said. "One is stop the bullet, and the second is reduce or minimize the trauma from the bullet."

Typically, body armor manufacturers draw on certain materials to stop the bullet, and rely on others focus to reduce the dent (to shield or absorb the backface trauma); Kevlar XP does both. It's one material that draws on the attributes of woven fabric technology to offers high bullet-stopping power; the rest of the layers serve to considerably dissipate the energy of the backface trauma.

How much'll they ding ya?
Vests aren’t cheap, but at $300 and up, they won’t break the bank.

"You’re not going to get a good vest for under $300," said Young. "If you start putting your own safety on a dollar amount, there's a good chance you won't buy the right gear."

Be sure to do your homework on warranties. Most manufactures offer deals in exchange for wearing their vest for X number of years, for instance, they’ll give you a discount on the next one you purchase. Also ask about keeping the carrier and just buying your next vest. (You could also purchase a few extra carriers at the time of the initial vest purchase, since these get the most wear and tear.)

What it comes down to is that you have to be comfortable with your vest. The NIJ does rigorous testing, so you can be sure that the category or threat level at which you're buying — if it's certified by NIJ — will be safe. Body armor doesn't do any good if it stays in the trunk of your car because you refuse to wear it.

A vest is a very intimate purchase. Not only do you wear it every day, but your life depends on it.

In the news: Atwater prison holding back safety vests

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