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What Are Body Armor Plates for Firefighters?

July 17, 2017

According to the Office for Victims of Crime, active shooter incidents increased from 1 in the year 2000 to 20 in 2015. In 2016, there were mass shooting incidents in an Orlando nightclub, Excel Industries, Dallas Police, Kalamazoo, Baton Rouge Police and the Cascades Mall. In these incidents, a total of 153 people were injured or killed.

These statistics are alarming and it is scary how accustomed we’re becoming to these incidents in the news. Even more frightening is the idea that firefighters and first responders could be sent on a call that turns into an ambush situation.

While firefighters are prepared to be in dangerous situations, they are typically determining the extent of the fire, the equipment they need to use and making sure everyone is safe. Yet more and more the news is reporting situations where firefighters are being targeted for an attack. A quick Google search on “firefighters attacked” pulls up articles about situations in Ohio, Tucson, D.C., Detroit, and Great Britain to name a few.

For this reason, some firefighting units have decided to start protecting their teams. While there is a debate to be had for whether or not firefighters should be wearing body armor, we are not addressing this today. Instead, we are going to review what exactly body armor is and what the best options are for firefighters to choose from that meet standards while also considering comfort and added bulk underneath turnout gear.

Types of Protection

Everything from helmets and shields to concealable and tactical vests is considered body armor. Armor is a protective style of clothing worn to deflect penetrating weapons attacks. There are two main types of body armor – regular, non-plated armor typically used by police, security guards, and bodyguards, and hard-plated armor, used by combat soldiers, police tactical units and hostage rescue teams.

“Bulletproof vests” are what people commonly tend to think of when they think of body armor, but it is very important to realize that nothing is actually bulletproof. Instead, it is bullet resistant. Also, if you’re only wearing a vest, there is no protection if shot in the head, neck, abdomen or under the arm.

For centuries, people have worn body armor. In fact, there is evidence that armor was worn dating back to 1400 BC. In early medieval times, full steel plate harnesses were worn, and additional plates were gradually added to protect vulnerable areas.

As times advanced, so did the materials and technologies used to construct the armor. Now, vests contain metal or ceramic plates to protect against rounds and tightly woven fibers give soft armor resistance to stabbing or slashing. Kevlar is a typical component of vests as it is lightweight, comfortable to wear and when woven together, the fibers don’t break like nylon fibers do.

Guidelines for Choosing Armor

There are different styles of body armor vests – covert and tactical. Covert is meant to be worn under the clothing and is considered to be lighter in weight and more comfortable, where tactical vests are worn on top of your uniform and are quite a bit bulkier in appearance and feel.

Sizing is crucial as vests shouldn’t be so big that they reduce your level of protection, yet you don’t want it so tight that your movements are restricted. A good standard rule is that vests should not hang past the navel.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) developed standards of protection that describe requirements that body armor must meet to protect the wearer from a ballistic round. There are six levels of protection, IIA, II, IIIA, III, IV and Special. The higher the level the better protected you will be; for example, levels IIA and II protect the wearer from 9 millimeter handgun rounds at 1,225 feet per second, while a level III hard plate and soft plate is tested to stop a 7.62 mm rifle at 2,780 fps.

Unfortunately, the higher the level of protection the bulkier the vest tends to be which can affect agility. The good news is that these vests are only necessary when high caliber guns are a threat. There is also a separate standard that outlines minimum requirements that equipment must meet for stab protection.

A good guideline to follow is that the first level of protection defends against common handguns, while the second level defends against submachine guns and magnums, and the third level adds hard plates to protect against rifles.

When considering what type of armor you should purchase, it is recommended that firefighters choose armor that meets the level II or level IIIA standard. These are typically concealable vests that are lightweight and can be worn covert style, meaning underneath your turnout gear, without feeling too cumbersome and can be comfortably worn for long periods of time. At CHIEF Supply, we have a variety of body armor solutions that can keep you protected and feeling safe and we’ve highlighted a few concealable vests that would be most practical for a firefighter to wear.

Popular Body Armor Models

Safariland Body Armor HARDWIRE 10 Panels

The HARDWIRE panels are considered to be the lightest on the market. Exceeding the NIJ standard, this vest is a ballistic level IIIA and has been tested against 12 additional threats. This vest comes in both a male and female unstructured fit.

Safariland Body Armor MONARCH MR01 Panels

This vest offers a more affordable option, combining comfort with ballistic resistance and a thin design that still exceeds the NIJ standard. Considered a ballistic level II, this vest has been tested against four additional special threats.

The Safariland Body Armor MONARCH MR01 Panels also offers a design that meets the ballistic level IIIA threat type, and is tested against 10 additional special threats.

Both vests come in sizing for males, structured and unstructured females.

Safariland Body Armor PRISM Multi-Threat Panels

This vest provides protection against both ballistic and stab threats. Using advanced woven materials, this vest meets or exceeds the NIJ standard. It comes in both Level II/Spike II and Level IIIA/Spike 3 for males and unstructured female fit.

Most manufacturers do not guarantee armor after five years so it’s important to keep that date in mind and replace your armor after its useful life. This may be easier if your unit has purchased the gear for you, but if not, keep track of the date so that you can ensure you are protected to the standards designed for the gear.

Know Your Environment and Assess Your Risks

It is impossible to know in advance what kinds of situations you’ll find yourself in and what you’ll need to protect yourself from, but your typical environment can clue you in. If you are in a rural area, chances are slim that you’ll be caught in gunfire, however, if you reside in a more urban area, it is a very good idea to protect yourself and your crew with body armor.

With the proper research, you are sure to find appropriate armor that meets the standards, the needs of your area as well as your comfort desires. Safety is your top priority, and all first responders deserve to be protected as they work to preserve property and save lives in our communities.