SNAPSHOT: S&T Labs focuses on body armor for women in law enforcement

Law enforcement in the United States remains a male-dominated profession. According to a recent report by the Department of Justice:PDF, 670KB, 44 pagesAccording to the U.S. Department of Defense and Statista, less than 13% of full-time police officers are women. So it’s no surprise that the ballistic protective gear worn by police officers in the field has traditionally been designed for men’s physiques. As the number of women entering the field continues to grow, so too does the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) designed for women’s physiques so that women can be just as safe, effective, and comfortable on the job as men.

From left: Brenda Velasco Lopez, Claire Gutekunst, Karin Decker, and Gladys Kremic of NUSTL with law enforcement focus group participants. On the far right is Chris Dooley of NUSTL.

Who better to research the best bulletproof vests on the market for the women who put their lives on the line every day, and who better to review operational requirements for design, form, fit and function? Yes, women scientists.

Fun fact: Did you know that the technology behind Kevlar, a synthetic fiber often used to make bulletproof vests that protect vital organs from ballistic threats during firearm incidents, was invented by a woman, Stephanie Kwolek, a DuPont chemist? And in September 2019, five women at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) National Urban Safety and Technology Laboratory (NUSTL) embarked on a project to evaluate the performance, usability, deployability, maintainability, and affordability of various makes and models of body armor for women.

“The development of performance requirements and test methods for ballistic body armor for women was identified as a priority by the Joint Commission, a collaborative panel of emergency preparedness and response experts,” said NUSTL program analyst Chris Dooley. “Because women are expected to perform the same missions as men, it is important to ensure that women’s body armor is optimized to provide the same level of protection as men.”

First, NUSTL’s Systems Evaluation and Validation for Emergency Responders (SAVER) program convened focus groups of female emergency responders from multiple states to obtain expert recommendations on evaluation criteria, product selection, and operational scenarios. Because emergency responders use ballistic body armor in their daily work, their input is essential to ensure appropriate models are tested and evaluated in real-world environments. All of their initial input is now available in NUSTL’s recently published focus group report and will be used as the basis for evaluating multiple PPE models in upcoming evaluations.

“I’ve been very impressed with how women in law enforcement deal with the many challenges that come with wearing bulletproof vests that are primarily designed for men,” said Karin Decker, a chemist at NUSTL. “They often feel uncomfortable or underprotected while on the job. Many of the women buy their own bulletproof vests that fit better and perform better, but they don’t know if they meet the ballistic specifications.”

A universal body armor solution doesn’t necessarily exist for women in law enforcement

Existing bulletproof vests worn by female officers in the field tend to be androgynous and can be worn by both men and women. Any These cups are designed to curve and fit around the bustline, with three-dimensional construction (creases, darts, and seams are used to create the shape of the cup). Focus group participants said that in their experience, these designs do not fit the contours of the body well.

NUSTL Director Alice Hong (left) samples one of the body armour models at a focus group.

“It’s extremely important that the bulletproof vest fits my body perfectly. We come in all different shapes and sizes, and one size is not safe for women,” said focus group participant Angela Alonzo, a Special Agent in Charge (retired) of the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement Investigations Division. “At the end of the day, I want to go home to my family.”

For NUSTL, offering female rescuers the opportunity to evaluate several currently available bulletproof vest options will ultimately help rescue agencies purchase appropriate PPE for their personnel. Focus groups were held to learn from users’ real-life experiences about important features to include in the evaluation.

“What we learned in the focus groups is that many emergency medical service fields and specialties are not prepared to provide women with the proper protective gear,” said Brenda Velasco-Lopez, an engineer at NUSTL. “We believe that women in science can find solutions not only for ballistic body armor for law enforcement, but also for other response fields that may lack the proper PPE for women. It’s important that we do all we can for the people who risk their lives every day to protect our communities.”

Focus group participants identified 21 different evaluation criteria and determined that, first and foremost, ease of use and functionality are the most important factors to consider when evaluating a garment, not price, although price, ease of deployment, and ease of maintenance are also taken into account.In terms of design, evaluation criteria include belt and vest compatibility, comfort, cup size, fit measurement process, design fit for women, non-restriction of movement, and closure direction.

“Being able to work with law enforcement officers in this environment gives us insight that’s hard to get anywhere else,” said Gladys Kremic, the NUSTL program manager who led the focus group.

New standards for bulletproofing of women’s body armor coming soon

A disassembled sample of ballistic armor provided by NIJ for NUSTL focus group presentations.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the lead agency for establishing and updating bulletproof vest performance standards, and currently has the ballistic resistance standard for bulletproof vests, 0101.06 (PDF, 1.56 MB, 89 pages.) is intended to update ballistic threat categories to ensure that women’s body armor provides adequate protection. The standard was originally approved in 2008, and the NIJ National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center’s Body Armor Fit Testing Program (CTP) released an administrative clarification document in 2015 that focuses on flexible ballistic-resistant body armor, including two-panel designs commonly used in women-optimized body armor. The updated standard is expected to be released later this year.

Alex Sundstrom, operations manager for the CTP Criminal Justice Testing and Evaluation Consortium, attended a focus group in September to discuss the revised standard, which will ultimately inform NUSTL’s selection of bulletproof vest products for the SAVER operational evaluation. The evaluation will only include products that are certified NIJ compliant. He described the NIJ laboratory’s performance testing process and highlighted new test specifications that address bulletproof vests designed specifically for women. For example, the revised standard includes additional specifications to account for potential weaknesses in the vest’s seams and increases the number of bulletproof vest panel samples tested to provide proper statistics for curved front panels.

“One of the most important things agencies can do is ensure that the armor they purchase is listed on the NIJ Compliant Products List. All armor models on the list have demonstrated ballistic performance that complies with the requirements of the NIJ standard and the requirements of the NIJ CTP,” Sandstrom said.

“Furthermore, participating in this focus group to plan the evaluation reinforced the need for agencies to take steps to ensure that protective gear fits each end user and provides adequate coverage,” Sundstrom continues. “This not only makes the gear more comfortable to wear, but also helps ensure that the gear performs as it should.”

The evaluation focuses on the opinions of end users who wear protective gear every day

NUSTL’s women’s body armor evaluation complements the certification program by focusing on the practical aspects and experiences women have when wearing armor. The evaluation will be conducted following the release of new NIJ standards and related product certifications and will be inclusive of female police officers of all body shapes, sizes, ages and levels of professional experience. Related information will be posted to the SAVER Publications Library on the S&T website.

“We get to know our officers as people; they give us a great perspective into life beyond the uniform. All of these factors drive us to do our jobs to the best of our ability and to help rescuers make the most informed decisions possible when it comes to purchasing new protective equipment,” Dooley said.

For more information about the focus groups, upcoming evaluations, and the SAVER program, please visit email address.

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