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September 10, 2013
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

Body armor tech: Looking at the future of personal protection equipment

Some of the new developments on the horizon include heat-resistant face paint, sponge-based body armor, and a new carrier design

Personal protective equipment — PPE — isn’t an especially sexy topic because most of us hate to wear it. 

Gloves are cumbersome, face masks get in the way and make it difficult to be understood, and body armor is hot, heavy and uncomfortable. 

There are some developments in the area of PPE that might make wearing this unfortunately necessary gear a little easier to manage.

Burn Protection
Burns are usually more of a worry for firefighters, but cops have to take precautions to protect themselves, too. The “pyro” part of pyrotechnics can blow up in your hands or face and ruin your day — or your career. 

Serving a warrant on a meth lab can also have its high-temperature surprises. Police uniforms are typically not fire-retardant, and there is usually not much you can do about protecting exposed skin on the face, neck and hands. 

Research at the University of Southern Mississippi — funded by the U.S. Dept. of Defense — has produced a camouflage face paint that also protects skin from thermal injury. The camouflage makeup/paint most commonly used by troops has a carbon base. 

By replacing the carbon with silicone, the paint can protect skin from the heat blast of an IED for the two seconds it takes it to pass, and will protect hands and feet for 15 seconds before mild, first-degree burns appear. The silicone is non-flammable, as it absorbs heat outside of the spectrum given off by flame. This gives soldiers more time to move out of the blast zone before they suffer crippling burns. 

A short video on the New Scientist website shows application of a butane torch to two side-by-side panels, one with the new coating, one without. The temperature rises to 95° C on the protected panel, 401° C on the unprotected version. 

I know which one I would want to be. 

The university is working on a clear version of the face paint for use by firefighters. Hopefully, they’ll share it with the cops. 

Ballistic Protection
Traditional body armor has been made from synthetic fibers like Kevlar, Dyneema, and Spectra, or from heavy ceramic plates. It’s improved markedly since its introduction in the early 1970s, but some cops don’t wear armor because of the perceived discomfort factor. There may be some improvement in the ballistic material that is the foundation of these vests, and it could come from sea sponges. 

The framework of a sea sponge is formed of needle-like “spicules” made mainly of calcium carbonate, held together by a protein mesh. The sponge is flexible because the mesh allows the framework to bend, although the spicules remain hard and intact. 

Taking their design from the sponge, some German materials scientists have produced a structure composed of calcite and a protein called silicatein-ά (pronounced “sill-leh-KATE-tee-in alfa”). Nanobricks, made of calcite and substituting for the spicules, are stacked like bricks in a chimney and held together with a matrix of silicatein-ά. 

The resulting material is pliable because the silicatein-ά flexes as needed, although the nanoparticles remain intact. The synthetic material is about ten times as flexible as a like quantity of sponge, and incredibly strong. It has tensile strength enough that it might be a substitute for the multiple layers of synthetic fiber used in police body armor. The research is described in the March 13, 2013 issue of Science

Finally, KDH Defense Systems is producing a body armor package that uses the traditional ballistic material for protection, but has an innovative method for wrapping it around the wearer’s body. 

The Transformer Armor System starts with a concealable harness that connects directly to the ballistic inserts, instead of carrying the panels in a vest. The manufacturer says this provides for far more adjustability than traditional body armor systems. The “Speed Plate Carrier Strapping System” is augmented by additional carrier sleeves that allow for insertion of a spacer to provide air circulation and/or a wicking material to carry perspiration away from the skin. 

Another sleeve is designed to be worn over the uniform shirt and mimic the appearance of the shirt without the carrier. Two more carriers feature gear pockets to move gear off your Sam Browne belt and onto the upper body, and MOLLE anchors to custom-modify your setup with the many MOLLE-type accessories available on the market. There are additional armor panels available to adjust the threat level of the armor as needed. 

The entire system allows officers to quickly convert a single body armor package to multiple modes for whatever assignment they may encounter. Five sleeves are supplied with each system purchase, with additional sleeves available for purchase. 

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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