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PoliceOne Roundtable: What’s new in NIJ .06 body armor?

Now that the standard is well established and there are dozens of choices for purchase, we decided to connect with four industry experts to get a handle on what’s new in .06 body armor

Five years ago, the Office of Law Enforcement Standards at the National Institute of Standards and Technology released a new Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ Standard — 0101.06.

The goal of the .06 standard — which “establishes minimum performance requirements and test methods” and supersedes previous NIJ body armor standards — is to increase ballistics performance and enhance durability against the rigors of daily wear in a variety of environmental conditions.

Armor meeting the .06 standard first started hitting the market in mid-2009, and by the time SHOT Show 2011 rolled around, we were getting to see more designs from more vendors.

Now that the standard is well established and there are dozens of choices for purchase, we decided to connect with four industry experts to get a handle on what’s new in .06 body armor.

Meet the Experts

Dan McNeil is Director of Tactical Armor for PROTECH Tactical, a brand of The Safariland Group. Through various roles including sales, technical support and category management, he’s been a leader in the hard armor and tactical armor industry for more than 20 years.

Matt Davis is CEO of Armor Express. Armor Express manufactures a range of quality body armor products for men and women including concealable and tactical body armor, accessories, and hard armor.

Ed Hinchey is Armor Technical Specialist for Concealable Body Armor for The Safariland Group, with 24 years of law enforcement experience as a police officer. Ed is currently the Armor Technical Specialist for The Safariland Group and spokesperson for The Safariland Group SAVES Club. Additionally, Ed is SAVE #951, as his life was saved in the line of duty in 2004 by his Second Chance body armor.

Steve Armellino is President and CEO of US Armor Corporation. Steve has been working with body armor for over 40 years starting with his father, Richard Armellino Sr., in the early 1970’s. Steve founded U.S. Armor Corporation in 1986 and has been evolving his products for the demands of today’s law enforcement and security communities for over 27 years.

1.) What would you say is the most important advancement we’ve seen in body armor meeting the NIJ .06 standard over the past five years?
Dan McNeil: Overall, there is a higher level of testing, which has resulted in manufacturers delivering safer products that perform more consistently. Specifically from a hard armor perspective, we are developing more robust and safer plates as a result of the required conditioning, including the drop test, for the certification process. The NIJ-06 standard also introduced unannounced FIT audits, which are performed by NIJ representatives who visit manufacturing facilities to inspect products at random for ballistic testing. This process is great for manufacturers and end users alike; it keeps us focused on consistency and quality, which helps us accomplish our mission of saving lives.

Matt Davis: The industry-wide move to waterproof armor systems is a very positive one.

Ed Hinchey: With the NIJ .06 standard, over the past five years the industry as a whole has seen significant advancements in the strength and resilience of body armor packages. NIJ-06 introduced rigorous conditioned testing protocols, which holds all armor manufacturers to higher criteria when it comes to testing for possible environmental extremities.

For The Safariland Group, this has resulted in us enhancing our laboratory facilities to include armor-conditioning equipment such as our ‘dunk tank’ for water submersion testing and our ‘tumbling / conditioning machine’, which tests humidity and temperature levels. This equipment is used to simulate real-world use over extended periods of time. Then we perform subsequent testing to ensure it still performs after these extended periods of time.

Steve Armellino: We’ve seen the vests get thinner, lighter and more flexible over the past five years. This is mainly due to us, as manufacturers, better understanding the NIJ .06 standard and how to design within that standard to better produce a comfortable vest that still satisfies the new requirements put in place by .06. The other reason the NIJ .06 vests have changed over the years is due to the technological advancements made in ballistic fiber. With these new material blends, we are now able to make more innovative combinations and produce vests that perform better at a ballistic level; however, they are now thinner and softer than ever before.

2.) What are the top two or three considerations for agencies and/or officers seeking to purchase new body armor meeting the NIJ .06 standard?
Dan McNeil: When purchasing hard armor plates, performance and weight are the most important considerations; they go hand in hand. Tradeoffs are inevitable, but the best way to identify the plate that best suits your needs is to decide what attributes are most important to you and rank them in terms of priority. If you know you need the lightest plate available, you might have to select a plate with less performance requirements. Conversely, if you need the greatest level of protection, you may end up with a heavier plate.

Matt Davis: Agencies need to carefully consider the tradeoffs between NIJ threat levels. Level IIA and level II armor is generally much more comfortable than level IIIA armor, but level IIIA armor does offer a higher level of protection. For most threats on the street, most level II armor is more than adequate; however, if agencies are encountering some of the more rare extremely high velocity rounds, level IIIA is the way to go. The greater comfort offered by the lower threat levels can be significant, so the choice can be a difficult one. Therefore, I believe there are two very important lessons for law enforcement: 1) conduct a threat assessment and determine the appropriate threat level, and 2) no matter what make, model, or threat level is chosen, each individual officer has to make the personal commitment to wear their vest every time they hit the street.

Furthermore, body armor is a very personal piece of life saving equipment. If it doesn’t fit properly, or doesn’t arrive on time, there are serious potential consequences. Most of the armor companies in the industry offer custom measuring and exchange or alteration services with each vest sold. These services can be critical to achieving the maximum overall comfort of the vests. Most companies will also quote expected delivery timeframes. It is important for agencies to pick companies that can meet their delivery needs. In many cases armor is ordered for new recruits.

These will be the first and only vests these brave men and women have. If the vests don’t arrive prior to their first day out of the academy, they will be unprotected. All companies see surges in orders from time to time and, speaking from the manufacturer’s perspective, it can become very difficult to keep up. At Armor Express we averaged just 21 days delivery in 2012. Over the past three months that number has increased to nearly 27 days, with some customers waiting as long as six weeks to get their armor. That is unacceptable to me, and that’s why we recently started a second shift to improve these statistics.

Ed Hinchey: From a concealable armor perspective, comfort, performance and price are the key factors to consider. Wearers often have different preferences for comfort when wearing a concealable vest, and manufacturers have created armor for males and females of all sizes. Understanding fit desires, performance requirements and budget will enable agencies and officers to select which vest is best for their needs.

Steve Armellino: Agencies are looking for an NIJ .06 vest that will have a thin and flexible feel. Fit has been a priority throughout the years — agencies will look for the vests that fit their officers properly so that their officers will wear them. Agencies will also want their personnel to understand how to properly wear their body armor and how to maintain their ballistic vests to get the maximum protection from these products.

3.) What advice would you give to individual officers who want to purchase their own NIJ .06 armor?
Dan McNeil: Understand the threats you face in your geographic area and make sure you are purchasing the correct threat level of armor. If you’re not sure, always err on the side of caution. You can never have too much protection.

Matt Davis: There are numerous factors to consider. Weight, flexibility, performance, durability, price; all these are significant factors and need to be considered carefully.

Ed Hinchey: Before visiting a distributor, do some homework by visiting the NIJ Compliant Product List. The CPL affirms that a specific body armor package has been certified to the NIJ Standard-0101.06. The CPL will also show any potential or confirmed safety issues that may arise after a specific body armor model has hit the CPL. The CPL is a great tool to use to ensure the armor you are looking at is compliant to all standards as stated by the NIJ-06.Customers can also check out numerous body armor websites to get a basic understanding of the available choices each manufacturer has to offer. You can cross-reference the information attained with the CPL to assure its validity.

Steve Armellino: First, off, make sure that the vest that you buy stops the weapon that you carry, and then choose a tailored fit over a standard-sized vest. A vest that is sized specifically to your body shape will ensure that level of comfort that you need to wear it every day. Also, look for a good fit guarantee from your manufacturer. This way, if your vest does not fit comfortably for any reason after you wear it for a few days, you will have the flexibility to send it to get adjusted to your specifications.

Lastly, look for a recent model of NIJ .06 armor. Earlier models of NIJ .06 body armor might feel stiffer and heavier. With the recent advances in ballistic fiber technology and manufacturing techniques, the newest models of NIJ .06 body armor will be thinner, lighter, and much more flexible. When purchasing a lifesaving device, consider spending the additional money for the best vest available. This way you will have the comfort you deserve and the performance you require.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.