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Why understanding the type of protection your body armor provides is critical for survival

As important as body armor is to an officer’s survival, it is equally important to understand how that protective equipment functions

By Julio Ramirez, Director of R&D, and Xiaolin Xu, R&D Engineer
Point Blank Enterprises

There is no question that body armor protects officers from serious injury and death. If we look at the more than 3100 officer saves documented by the IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors’ Club, it is clear why personal body armor should be at the top of every officer’s safety list.

Yet, as important as body armor is to an officer’s survival, it is equally important to understand how that protective equipment functions — what it can do and more so, what it cannot do.

This includes having some basic knowledge of the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) body armor standards and classifications (i.e. Ballistic Resistance of Personal Body Armor NIJ Standard-0101.06 and Stab Resistance of Personal Body Armor NIJ Standard-0115.00), and recognizing that:

1) There is no such thing as body armor that is “bulletproof.” The reality is that your vest is only “bullet resistant.” Like an automobile seat belt, you put it on when you head out to work, knowing that if you are in an accident it will enhance your chances of survival, but it does not guarantee that your life will be saved.

2) There are significant differences between ballistic- and stab-resistant armor. A ballistic vest does not address resistance from knives or other sharp, pointed weapons unless it is designed and certified to defeat both threats. There continues to be some lack of awareness about ballistic and stab protection capabilities and limitations.

3) How a vest is cared for dictates how well it may perform when needed — whether it’s for ballistic or stab protection. This can be taken for granted. If a vest is subjected to abuse such as improper storage, cleaning, or subjected to a severe environment, its performance can deteriorate. Body armor should be inspected every year for unusual signs of wear and replaced if necessary.

The good news is that latest developments in multi-dimensional and multi-compliant systems are providing even greater protection against a range of threats.

New, state-of-the-art fiber technology and innovative designs are bringing additional capabilities and coverage to body armor packages. As a result, these robust, high-performance solutions are helping to ease some of the worries about officers who mistakenly believe that their ballistic armor will stop a stab attack, for instance.

Clearing Up a Common Misconception
For the purposes of this discussion, let us focus on a key fallacy surrounding ballistic and stab-protection: while there have been cases where body armor has over-performed and prevented a spike from puncturing a ballistic panel, officers must never assume that their ballistic vest will stop a stab attack.

If stab protection is required, stab-resistant or multi-threat armor (both ballistic and stab protection) should be worn.

The current NIJ Standard-0101.06 specifies minimum performance requirements and test methods for the ballistic resistance of personal body armor designed to protect the torso against gunfire.

Body armor covered by this standard is classified into five types (IIA, II, IIIA, III, and IV) by level of ballistic performance. A special test class is also defined to allow armor to be validated against threats that may not be covered by the five standard classes.

In contrast, NIJ Standard -0115.00 establishes minimum performance requirements and test methodology for body armor that is designed to protect the torso against stab and slash weapons.

Body armor covered by this standard are grouped into one of two protection classes (‘Edged Blade’ and ‘Spike’) depending on the type of threat environment. Within each protection class, the armor is further categorized into one of three protection classes (1, 2, and 3).

The NIJ, along with manufacturers and suppliers, are continuously working to educate end-users on the proper use and understanding of armor systems — not to mention the realistic expectations.

Among the areas reinforced are the differences between ballistic-resistant and spike-resistant packages. Needless to say, the material and stopping requirements for these systems are very distinct.

The fabric used in ballistic-resistant packages tends to be constructed of heavier deniers and has a looser woven or unidirectional construction. That’s because the body armor is designed to resist blunt or crushing trauma.

The fabric is layered and weaved in a way to engage and distribute the force of a bullet’s impact over a large surface area, thereby reducing the traumatic effects.

On the contrary, the fabric used in spike-resistant packages is very tightly woven and is made of finer aramid yarns. To defeat sharp pointed objects, the fabric is layered and weaved in a manner to create enough friction on the spike as it makes contact with the vest and effectively slow down and stop the force.

Body Armor Meets Multiple ThreatsNew combo ballistic-stab systems have evolved to provide today’s law enforcement and corrections officers with maximum coverage against multiple threats.

Let’s take for instance the corrections officer overseeing inmates inside a penitentiary; he or she is at greater risk for assault with a make shift weapon (e.g. a shank made of plastic or a sharpened piece of wood, metal or glass) and would have a greater need for stab/slash-resistant armor.

On the other hand, the officer transporting inmates outside of the penitentiary will almost always be carrying their firearm and is at risk of being attacked not only with a sharp or pointed weapon but also their own gun.

As such, they would require greater coverage for both stab and ballistic threats. The latest combo vests are designed to adapt and protect the officer against various risks in various environments.

Interestingly, results of a reader survey conducted by a leading law enforcement publication not too long ago revealed that 80.5 percent of officers, when asked what other protective capacity they would want added to their vest, said stab protection.

According to the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), the lives of at least 29 law enforcement and corrections officers were saved by bullet- and stab-resistant vests in 2011. Seventeen were wearing protective vests purchased, in part, with funds provided through the OJP’s Bureau of Justice Assistance’s (BJA) Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP) Program.

From an R&D perspective, the engineering, design and testing processes needed to create combo ballistic- and stab-resistant systems are complex. This is because the package must comply with two uniquely different standards.

The treatment of the ballistics component will affect the performance of the stab component, and vice versa. Engineers generally have to find the right balance as they evaluate and test different fiber materials and applications.

Typically, fabrics are first assessed for stab resistance to determine how many layers (i.e. aerial density) would successfully defeat spike level 1, 2 and 3 threats, as defined by the NIJ.

Following this test, fabrics are evaluated for ballistic resistance at the same aerial density. Ultimately, the stab-resistant material that shows the best performance against ballistics is selected. Specific ballistic fabrics are then added to reach the ballistic level.

In addition to the performance factor, the comfort element is critical for combo systems. We all agree that body armor is only effective if it’s worn, and the more comfortable an officer feels in his/her vest, the more likely they will wear it.

The ideal combo ballistic and stab system is designed using innovative materials and advanced engineering to minimize aerial density (i.e. fabric weight), while maximizing functionality.

Current certifications for combo packages include Ballistic IIA — Spike Class 3, Ballistic II — Spike Class 2, and Ballistic IIIA — Spike Class 3.

Industry Changes On the Horizon
In the coming years, as technology changes are made in developing multi-threat systems, so will the standard review and certification processes. According to latest industry feedback, the NIJ is currently re-evaluating its existing Stab Resistance of Personal Body Armor NIJ Standard-0115.00.

Additionally, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is continuing to work with the industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards based on global best practices.

About the Authors
Julio Ramirez is the Director of Research and Development at Point Blank Enterprises. He has spent the last decade developing and managing the company’s product testing and certification processes for more than 100 certifications under the various NIJ standards. Julio is deeply knowledgeable and has significant, real-world experience in standards compliance and quality control of law enforcement as well as military application systems.

Xiaolin Xu Xiaolin Xu is a Research and Development Engineer at Point Blank Enterprises. In her role, Ms. Xu examines and evaluates different textile/polymer systems for ballistic and anti-stab application. She focuses on designing and analyzing new ballistic and anti-stab body armor systems, which includes reviewing the effect of fiber properties, weaving structure, and surface treatment on ballistic and anti-stab performance.