Firefighters undoubtedly work in very difficult and dangerous environments, and are already outfitted with incredibly protective equipment. However, they are also increasingly called to deal with difficult circumstances of a different kind, with far too many incidents reported of Firefighters being attacked and subjected to violence. There are already some Firefighters choosing to equip themselves with body armor, and even some departments that have made bullet proof vests mandatory. Body armor is more accessible than ever, and manufacturers are creating ever more breathable and unobtrusive vests. However, the decision to wear a vest rests largely with the individual, as only they know if their circumstances require body armor. If they do, it is important to know what protection the vest will offer.
Body armor is tested and graded according to the ballistic protection it can offer. This grading is undergone in line with the testing done by the US National Institute of Justice, which is widely recognized as the world leader in ballistics testing. The NIJ assigns levels of protection to body armor which outlines exactly what size, speed, and strength of ammunition a vest can stop. There are many different styles of body armor available, but they can be split largely into two categories: ‘Soft Armor’, and ‘Hard Armor’. Soft Armor uses lightweight and flexible materials like Kevlar to provide protection, and is available up to NIJ Level IIIa. Hard Armor will also use fabrics like Kevlar, but with rigid panels of Ceramics and/or Polyethylene over the top, to provide protection up to NIJ Level IV.
NIJ Level IIa is capable of protecting against 9mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose and .40 S&W Full Metal Jacketed ammunition, which are used in the majority of handguns. It is also capable of stopping similar handgun ammunition, such as the 10mm Auto, .357 SIG, and even .45 ACP.
NIJ Level II armor is capable of protecting against all of the above ammunition, as well as .357 Magnum Jacketed Soft Points and 9mm Parabellum rounds fired at a higher velocity.
NIJ Level IIIa, the highest level available in Soft Armor, can stop all of the above ammunition, as well as 9mm Parabellum rounds fired from a semi-automatic. It can also protect against .44 Magnum Jacketed Hollow Point rounds.
NIJ Level III armor can protect against the 7.62x51mm NATO Full Metal Jacketed round, as well as the 5.56x45mm NATO. It can also stop the vast majority of rifle and automatic rounds, such as the .30-06 and the .308 Winchester, as well as all the ammunition listed in the levels above.
NIJ Level IV is the highest level of protection currently available, and is capable of protecting against all the ammunition outlined above, as well as armor-piercing variants of the 7.62x51mm NATO and 5.56x45mm NATO.
It is likely that Hard Armor will simply be unnecessary for Firefighters; the extra weight and bulk may actually prove to be a hindrance in the punishing environments they work in. However, for the most extreme threats these armors are unmatched in protection. Whatever the decision, it must reflect the individual’s own preparation and awareness of the situation. For more information on ballistic protection and NIJ Levels, visit the NIJ’s Official Documentation.