Tech Q&A: John Armstrong of Remploy Frontline
The company has begun to expand its area of operations to include the United States and already they provide protective gear to one U.S. agency that shall remain unnamed in deference to the sensitivity of their mission.
Remploy was set up in 1946 to reemploy – thus the name – World War II veterans, many of whom had suffered physical injuries that made it difficult – if not impossible – for them to re-enter the civilian workforce. Today the company has an entire division that trains myriad disabled people and places them into mainstream employment with various blue-chip companies in the United Kingdom.
Roughly seventy percent of Remploy’s employees are disabled in some way, but their challenges do not prevent them from making incredible contributions to the welfare of others. The company’s Frontliner division provides people who are physically and mentally challenged the ability to report to work every day to help law enforcement and military personnel stay save in the face of grave danger...
PoliceOne: What hazards in CBRN are looming for law enforcement officers?
Armstrong: These are my personal views. I think the most worrisome fact for law enforcement officers from a CBRN perspective is not knowing what the future holds for them in their role. If you think about it, the bad guys haven’t struck significantly anywhere in the world – despite what we’re led to believe and we’re told in the news papers, and what the government tells us. There have been some isolated incidents certainly, but not in the way that it was originally portrayed to all of us that this is the biggest threat looming around the corner and the holocaust is going to arrive tomorrow. That does not appear to have happened, and there are various theories to why. One theory is that by being in Iraq and Afghanistan we’ve driven them back to their homelands. The contrary theory to that argument is that when we leave, they’ll follow us.
One of the things that we’ve known for some time is that al-Qaeda has the capability of delivering weapons of mass destructions. I kind of think that, though they’ve had some not insignificant attempts on us, they’ve been looking and learning. They’ve looked at the way law enforcement officers operate, and how things go on in the city. And I think they’ve used that time to plan.
There are significantly more incidents than ever reach the public domain. So I suppose what we’re facing and what the law enforcement officer on the streets is facing is: what’s going to happen? When’s it going to happen? And am I protected against it?
What we’re trying to do is to develop all the time to out-guess the bad guy. What we task ourselves with is this: To manufacture something that is future-proof and that is relevant. And it’s always developing at a pace which we hope will be in advance of the threat backdrop that the law enforcement officers face.
PoliceOne: It’s been our good fortune – and a good lot of hard work – that has thus far prevented something like 9/11 from happening again. But it is going to happen again. So the question becomes, what in your personal view and expertise is the preparedness to deal with a CBRN incident, irrespective of your or a competitor’s products? Are officers protected at present?
Armstrong: If I was to give you an analogy, it would be with the IRA. If you look at how the IRA operated, they hit the major centers, and then all of a sudden they changed their modus operandi – they went outside of the major centers, and they started hitting the smaller towns and communities, and it caused tremendously bad PR. The ripple effect was enormous. I think if I was a terrorist I’d be thinking the same thing. The big cities in my country – and in your country and throughout the Western World – are pretty well equipped. Whether it’s our product, or our competitor’s product, the level at which they are protected and the training is quite significant. They’re prepared. So if I was targeting something, why would I target something that is ready for me? I kind of wonder if they’ll adopt the kind of thing the IRA did in Britain, and that’s go out there and hit something that is relatively week.
PoliceOne: Well that leads directly into my next question – it’s 99.9 percent more likely that a semi- full of caustic chemicals will overturn in a rural area than it would in a city. So those rural officers and first responders will have to be out there dealing with that ugly mess. Can you speak to the way in which rural agencies can seek some grants? Because this protective equipment doesn’t come cheap and it shouldn’t –it’s complicated and well-made stuff.
Armstrong: You’re in danger of getting me onto my favorite subject, which is, I don’t think that the NFPA qualification for Homeland Security Grants is necessarily the best thing. I’ve long been a believer that what is right for the fire service is not necessarily right for the police officers in these circumstances. And I know that in your country it has been a struggle to get a different standard adopted for police forces. I think there needs to be some proactive development in that area.
PoliceOne: How would that work?
Armstrong: Homeland security should be pulling this together. In Britain, we have the Home Office pulling together the police forces and the fire services. And the fire services and the police services are spread about the country and are controlled differently. Some 80 percent are rural, and that’s where we developed the Frontliner suits that we market here in the States. And that was actively developed with the fire services and the police forces saying: well, we’re going to have chemical spills, we could get gasses and vapors, the whole gamut of things, and this is what we need to protect against these kinds of levels. Yes you’re right, it isn’t cheap. The materials and the research and the design features that go into these suits cost money. You can’t have a plastic bag over your body and hope to protect yourself against these things. It needs the appropriate standard setting for the appropriate setting. And, if you can get cross-functional capabilities, that’s even better because you get more bang for your buck.
PoliceOne: When was the Frontliner suit introduced?
Armstrong: The Fronltliner suit was developed about four years ago. It has now been superseded – we’ve just gone through a whole process in Britain for our Home Office. Our Home Office has just gone out again on another round of suit development. There is a project called “Quick Don.” As the name employs, one of its key features is that you have to be able to don it in under five minutes. Everybody from Lion Apparel [manufacturer of firefighter uniforms] to Bluecher [Remploy’s largest competitor – a German company] which does the JSLIST [Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology] suit, went for that contract. It has not been awarded yet, but we’re still in there, and the two suits that we have in there are both don-able in under five minutes. They give significant levels of protection against a whole range of situations that you can come across.
The second level that this one specified is physiological burden. As you know, if you’ve ever been in one of these suits, they are not pleasant to be inside. You’ve got a mask across your face. By very nature that you’re trying to keep everything out, you’re keeping everything in. Trying to get breathable materials that actually do work is difficult.
Where is it going? Higher breathability. And if you get higher breathability, is there a downside on the risk? Fabric and garment manufacturers are trying to balance that to go forward. You want to get it on and off quickly, you want to be able to use it longer, be safe when you take it off, and be reasonably comfortable while you’re wearing it. These are the kind of things we’re being asked for, and these are the kinds of things we’re addressing at the moment.
Every fabric manufacturer and suit manufacturer is working to address those basic issues. How can we stay out there longer, what makes us safer, and makes us feel better? Without going into specifics in terms of manufacturers, there is an awful lot of stuff being put through the U.S. Army Soldier Center, for example, where the government is sponsoring quite a few fabric manufactures to come up with new ideas. We’re looking at what you could call self-decontaminating fabrics. So inbound things hit the suit and the chemicals on the suit react with it, work with it, and neutralize it.
I can’t get into the specifics of it, but what I can tell you is that it’s very new and the U.S. government is spending a lot of money, working on it with manufacturers. We’re working with two or three fabric manufactures on how we can incorporate [their technology] into our suits.
I don’t think you’ll see anything out on the market for about a year [but] I can tell you that it’s at quite an advanced stage. I’ve seen demonstrations of it, and I’ve been mightily impressed. The task that is being set for these scientists is enormous. They’re solving it, which is fantastic.
PoliceOne: What does the future hold for Remploy? Tell me a little more about your mission objectives.
Armstrong: Our reason for being is protection. Our mission objectives are to start breaking into the U.S. market in a more significant way. We’ve been here [in the US] for two years, and we’re really just starting. But when I go and talk to a senior police officer in New York, he knows Remploy, because he knows his counterpart in the UK. The U.S. and the UK pretty much stand together in this area and the intergovernmental chat is significant. So if I go out into the major cities, the major policemen know the suit that the British police wear, and similarly, I know from talking to lots of British Army and American Army people, they swap suits when they’re not out in the field. So there is a knowledge base and understanding base. So we’re looking at it that we’re doing pretty well.
What we’re trying to do is to pull together a group of high-level team of experts and discuss exactly the question you started out with, which is where is this going and how are we going to protect officers? We’ve got some army guys, some ex-army guys, some ex-police guys, and some active guys who are still serving. And we sit and talk to them once every quarter. We’re looking at doing that kind of thing in the U.S. as well, because that allows us to provide even a better product.
We think we’ve got something to offer the American law enforcement Officer, because we think we can protect him with a better protective system than he has at the moment. Of course that varies state to state, town to town. You hit the nail on the head by saying the best suits aren’t cheap, and we’re not cheap but what I’ve said to many senior officers is this: “What price, life?”
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