How a 2003 Incident Spurred New Body Armor Standards

In June of 2003, a Police Officer was shot twice by a suspect in Forest Hills, Pennsylvania. Police Officer Edward Limbacher was attempting to arrest a drug suspect while on an undercover operation. Like many officers of the time, Limbacher was wearing an Ultimax/Ultima bulletproof vest, which contains Zylon — a strong synthetic fiber. While one shot pierced the officer’s arm, which was unprotected, another shot hit his abdomen, penetrating the failed Ultimax body armor. Fortunately, Limbacher survived. The suspect was apprehended.

However, this body armor failure raised major red flags and increased awareness about the need for better standardization and testing for body armor. Police agencies and regulatory agencies were alarmed at the vest failure. “This engenders a sense of worry. There’s enough about police work that produces a certain level of concern every day … [so] something like this is like a betrayal — that this bulletproof vest you were relying on apparently might not save a life at all,” said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations.

The National Institute of Justice, which publishes standards for ballistics materials performance, was quick to investigate the incident. In addition, Utimax and Ultima vests were immediately discontinued, yet thousands of bulletproof vests were still out in use in police agencies.

What Went Wrong

The bulletproof vest failure was unexpected, and agencies were quick to ask what went wrong. After all, police agencies had been outfitting their officers with these vests for years. At the time, Ulitma and Ultimax vests were rated to expire after five years. This limitation was put in place since ballistics materials are liable to degrade over time, especially when worn regularly and when exposed to outdoor conditions (such as rain and UV exposure). Unfortunately the degradation of Ultima and Utimax vests appears to be more rapid than projected. While Ultima-model vests have saved officers in the past (having possibly saved over 30 officers), degraded vests simply aren’t reliable. National Institute of Justice testing further concretizes this conclusion.

NIJ Testing and Changes

In November of the same year, the NIJ began a Body Armor Safety Initiative to reassess the integrity of body armor. The same initiative would also reexamine the certification process for body armor. First, the NIJ examined the vest, weapon, and ammunition used in the shooting in June. In addition, the NIJ began retesting Zylon-based body armors, to see if they held up to bullet projectiles. The NIJ also tested retrofitted models of Zylon-based body armors, where additional protective materials were used to reinforce the body armor.

Initial Findings

The NIJ first wanted to establish the problem that occurred with the armor being used in the June shooting. However, the findings were somewhat inconclusive. The NIJ notes in their article, Body Armor Safety Initiative, “The bullet velocity from the gun used in the shooting was not greater than the bullet velocity NIJ uses in compliance testing for the type of vest Limbacher was wearing. The physical properties of the bullets used in the shooting were similar to bullets used in NIJ’s compliance testing of the type of vest Limbacher was wearing, although there were some differences in bullet geometry and in how the bullet deformed on impact. The tensile strength of Zylon® yarns removed from the back panel of Limbacher’s vest was up to 30 percent lower than Zylon® yarns from new armor that the manufacturer provided for this study. (The front panel, which was penetrated in the incident, was being held as evidence in the criminal case against the shooter, so it was not available for testing.)”

Despite continual efforts to determine the true source of the failure of the vest in the June shooting, the NIJ noted that it was “unable to draw a definitive conclusion.”

Testing Used Zylon Armor

The NIJ notes that Zylon armor degrades for a variety of reasons. This body armor can degrade due to exposure to “heat, moisture, ultraviolet and visible light, detergents, friction, and stretching.” As such, used armor loses its protective qualities over time and due to use. NIJ began testing used armors more rigorously after the June, 2003 incident. The NIJ reported their findings: “NIJ conducted ballistic and mechanical properties testing on 103 additional used body armors containing Zylon®. Law enforcement agencies across the United States provided these vests to NIJ. Sixty of these used armors (58 percent) were penetrated by at least one round during a six-shot test series. Of the armors that were not penetrated, 91 percent had backface deformations in excess of that allowed by the NIJ standard for new armor. Only four of the used Zylon®-containing armors met all performance criteria expected under the NIJ standard for new body armor compliance. Although these results do not conclusively prove that all Zylon®-containing body armor models have performance problems, the results show that used Zylon®-containing body armor may not provide the intended level of ballistic resistance.”

What’s even more alarming is that visible wear doesn’t seem to indicate the actual ballistic performance of the body armor. NIJ reports that “Testers found no correlation between the level of visible wear of the body armor panels and the ballistic performance of those panels. This finding is important because even used Zylon® body armor that appears to be in good condition may not provide an acceptable level of performance.”

Testing Upgrade Kits

After the incident, body armor manufacturers offered to retrofit existing, in-use armor with added protective panels as an upgrade kit. The NIJ was tasked with testing these upgrade kits, to ensure that they were up to NIJ standards for protection levels. Unfortunately, upgrade kits like the ones created by Second Chance Body Armor, did not meet NIJ standards for protection. While upgrade kits did improve the pierce resistance of the body armors in which they were installed, they still did not meet the standards set forth by the NIJ. Their summation to the upgrade kit testing was as follows: “NIJ’s testing found that the Second Chance upgrade kits added protection when used with the existing used body armor. However, the level of protection did not meet existing NIJ performance standards for new body armor.”

Adopt a Quality Management System

The NIJ encourages police and military agencies to adopt a quality management system in order to ensure that in-use body armor is consistently up to NIJ standards, ensuring that it provides adequate protection for its intended use. The NIJ encourages agencies to heed the warranty information provided by ballistics materials manufacturers. It’s important to use up-to-date body armor to mitigate the odds of death or serious injury while on duty. Outdated, damaged, and used body armor may be compromised, and should be disposed of properly.

Body Armor Disposal From Fiber Brokers

All active-use body armor should be up to NIJ standards, and outdated or damaged ballistics materials should be dismantled to minimize the hazards that police and military members face. Here at Fiber Brokers, we’re proud to offer a body armor disposal and recycling program that complies with NIJ standards. We aim to track your out-of-service body armor from your agency to ours, providing you with a certificate of destruction upon dismantling the material. We also reuse materials that can be reclaimed, so these technical materials don’t end up in a landfill. If you’re curious about what we can do for your agency, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us! We’d be happy to answer any questions you may have, and we can guide you through the process as you ship out-of-service body armor to us.

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