Why I wear a Safe Life Defense vest: One officer’s story
Learn how Tommy, the cop behind Free Field Training on YouTube, put the vests to the test and found them capable of stopping a variety of threats
Sponsored by Safe Life Defense
To help spread the word about its high-quality, low-cost body armor, Safe Life Defense actively seeks out advocates in the law enforcement community. PoliceOne reached out to Tommy of Free Field Training, who has been working with Safe Life Defense since their startup days, and asked him to tell us more about how he got involved with the company and why he believes in their products.
Here are highlights from our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity:
What’s your background and your current role in policing?
I’m a patrolman. I started in 2006 with a little suburb right off the south edge of Chicago. About four years into my career, I became a field training officer. It was really never anything I intended on doing long term, but teaching other people the basics of law enforcement is something that I’ve really excelled at. I decided maybe I’d make it into a little side project, and that’s what led me to where I am today. I’m still a patrolman and still teach our new guys who come to the department. I found my niche.
The goal of the YouTube channel was always to provide what I can in open source training. When I found out that a lot of people didn’t really understand how body armor works or what it would feel like if you got hit with it – and had a lot of misconceptions, mostly based on the internet of what it can do, what it can’t do – we decided, when we get body armor, we’re just going to shoot it.
How did you get involved with Safe Life Defense?
They started contacting me early on when I was making videos for work. I was covering simple things that you don’t want to have to teach 30 different people 30 different times, and I was making videos and posting them on YouTube so I wouldn’t have to carry a flash drive around anymore.
And it started to get kind of a following. I had probably a few thousand subscribers at the time Nick from Safe Life Defense contacted me. He asked did I want to shoot their armor, and I said, “Yeah. Send me two of them, and I’ll shoot one. I’ll give the other one away because I have a vest for work already.” I didn’t need another one – and honestly, I didn’t really expect the result that we got when they sent us the original vest.
What surprised you about their vests?
The price point of their original vest was something like $400, and for someone that’s used to spending $1,200 on just a soft armor vest, I thought, “For $400, how good is this going to be?” So three buddies and I took it out, fully expecting to shoot it and be like, “Well, this is what you get for 400 bucks.” We shot it with everything that we had and couldn’t get anything to go through it. I made the video, and we gave one of the vests away. Everybody loved it.
Since then, we’ve been working with Safe Life Defense every time they come out with a new product, and I’ve been wholly impressed with everything they make, because their penchant is always, “Let’s just overbuild the crap out of this and make it the most protective thing that we possibly can at the price point so people who need to buy their own stuff can know that they’re protected.” I can get down with that.
Tell me more about your evaluation process.
I let the lab guys do the lab guy stuff. We won’t shoot armor unless somebody’s already lab tested it. What I want to do is give people an idea that they can relate to as to what the actual product will do. So with body armor we said, “Let’s take the worst-case scenario. You get hit right in the sternum. How can we simulate that and show people what that’s going to feel like?”
I can put it on a gel torso. We’ve done that, but people think that their body is going to look like a gel torso when it’s done, that it’s not going to hurt. You can put it up against clay, but you have to keep the temperature right in order for it to show anything, and most people don’t understand what happens when you hit clay with a certain amount of force.
So what we do is to put it up against 1-inch pine boards. It was an old military standard back in the day that if a projectile could go through a 1-inch pine board, it had the potential to be deadly. And it also gives somebody a realistic comparison that they can understand in their everyday life.
Most people have hit a pine board with a hammer, so when you put a piece of body armor up against a pine board, and you shoot it and then you show them what it did to the board behind it, I think it clicks in a lot of people’s heads, “Oh, that’s what it’s going to feel like if I get hit. Look at the dent it made in that board.” It’s a standard of measure that your average person who has any experience working on their house is going to understand.
Why do you take the vests apart?
We take it apart for two reasons. One, I take it apart so that people can see that this is how deep the round’s going. Also, it opens people’s minds up to other things like the properties of the different projectiles that are being used. People think certain projectiles do certain things. I get comments all the time from people that, “You should shoot that with a hollow point because hollow points will go through armor better,” which is crazy. It has no bearing on how ammunition works at all.
So if we shoot it with several different projectiles of different types and then take it apart and I pull those projectiles out, not only can you see how far it went in that particular medium, whatever it is – whether it’s a polyethylene vest or a Twaron-based vest or this new FRAS, which is kind of a composite of several different ballistic materials – it allows people to see with their own eyes, this is how far it goes through this material, and here’s what the projectile looks like when it’s done.
You said that Safe Life Defense is providing a lot of protection for the price point. What are some of the features and benefits that make this possible?
Safe Life Defense’s armor is not going to be the lightest, thinnest or most flexible armor that you’re going to get. What they’re doing is they’re giving a person who is spending their own money a lot of bang for their buck, and they’re putting most of that bang toward it being protective and wearable on a day-to-day basis.
So, instead of worrying about what the aerial density of it is, which has a small effect on how comfortable it is, they put it in a carrier that has a mesh backing. And instead of worrying about how heavy it is, they’re saying, “If we can use 10 layers of an aramid fabric, and it can meet the standards, then let’s put 14 or 16 in it. That way, we’re way above the standards, and we know this won’t fail.”
Their original IIIA vest stops everything you would imagine a IIIA vest would stop and stops it fairly easily in comparison with other IIIA armor that I’ve shot at work and for the channel. I don’t know how they managed to overbuild their IIIA+ to the extent that they did, but it stops things that commonly go through IIIA armor. The plus is that it’s going to protect you better against very high velocity handgun rounds – like the Liberty Civil Defense 55-grain 9mm, like FN Five-seveN rounds – things that people were going on the internet and saying, “Oh, yeah. IIIA will stop most handguns, but it won’t stop this one.”
Safe Life Defense worked on meeting that niche in the market that other companies weren’t meeting because they were worried about how flexible or thin is this going to be. They angled more toward “How protective can we make this?” and “Let’s work on that one number that people are really worried about if they’re spending their own money on the armor.” It doesn’t help me how comfortable it is if it’s not protecting me.
Do you wear Safe Life Defense armor yourself? Which vest?
I got the pre-production prototype of FRAS and we shot it, and then as soon as Safe Life Defense came out with their production model and started shipping it, I had them ship me one. That’s what I wear at work. Luckily for me, it fits in the carrier armor I’m required to wear.
FRAS is a full coverage vest. It’s a flexible armor, so it’s not soft the way a traditional aramid fabric or polyethylene vest would be. Basically, it’s a Dyneema vest with a bunch of rifle plates interlocked together on the front of it on Kevlar. What that does is create surface area similar to what you have for a soft armor vest, but it’s all rifle protection up to every 5.56 round that we’ve been able to get ahold of coming out of a 16-inch barrel.
Imagine a soft armor panel, but then in front of it are a bunch of little hexagonal ceramic plates that interlock together. What those plates do is they take the initial brunt of any hit from a rifle round and cause that round to yaw and dispense most of its energy and speed, and in most cases – in fact, every case that we had – it makes it fragment to such a great degree that it allows the Dyneema ballistic material behind it to be able to catch the pieces of the round that are left.
So it works very similarly to having a soft armor vest with a rifle plate in front of it, except instead of one large rifle plate that’s made together of a bunch of a little bonded pieces, it’s all of those bonded pieces attached to a backer that can flex around your body, both in front and behind.
What makes the FRAS different from other vests that you’ve worn or tried?
Surface area. It weighs about the same as if you were going to have front and back protection with soft armor. It actually weighs a little bit less than wearing a Level IV plate with soft armor, but the surface area is a lot larger. It doesn’t stop to the standards of a Level IV armor plate, but this stops all of the common threats that you’d have inside the United States in order to punch through armor, according to the lab tests and to our field tests, and it stops them quite easily.
That extra surface area means a higher probability that if I get shot with a rifle at work, it’s going to hit the protective area for rifle threats. If I wear a plate, it’s only that 10x12 area of the plate where the rifle round will get stopped, whereas with FRAS, if I get hit anywhere in the area that would normally be covered with my soft armor vest, it will stop those rounds. That’s especially important to me being a patrolman on the street where a bunch of people that I work with are carrying rifles.
Any final thoughts about Safe Life Defense?
This is the stuff I recommend to my friends when they say they have to buy their own vests. I can’t give it a higher endorsement than that. I wear it, and when people I know, my friends, say, “Hey, I need a new vest for work. My old one’s wearing out. What should I get?” this is where I direct them, because I know that they’re going to be protected, and they’re not going to go bankrupt.
I can direct you to things that are thinner. I can direct you to things that are wider, things that look super cool, that have really cool carriers, but if you want to know that anything somebody shoots at you is going to get stopped, this is what I suggest. A lot of those people have bought them, and all of them have been happy with that purchase.