Firefighters and body armor: a look at protection levels

Firefighters and body armor: a look at protection levels

Firefighters undoubtedly work in difficult and dangerous environments and are fitted 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. Some firefighters choose to equip themselves with body armor, and even some departments have made bulletproof 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 with the individual, as only they know if their circumstances require body armor. If they do need body armor, they must understand what protection the vest will offer.

Body armor is tested and graded according to the ballistic protection it can offer. This grading is in line with the US National Institute of Justice requirements. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is widely recognized as the world leader in ballistics testing and assigns levels of protection to body armor which outline exactly what size, speed, and strength of ammunition a vest can stop. There are many different styles of body armor available and they can be split 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 encased by Polyethylene to provide protection up to NIJ Level IV.

NIJ Level IIa can protect against 9mm Full Metal Jacketed Round Nose and .40 S&W Full Metal Jacketed ammunition, both of which are used in the majority of handguns. It can also stop 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 is the highest level available in soft armor and can stop all of the above ammunition, as well as 9mm Parabellum rounds fired from semi-automatic and .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, plus the ammunition listed in the levels above.

NIJ Level IV is the highest level of protection currently available and can protect against all the ammunition outlined above, as well as armor-piercing variants of the 7.62x51mm NATO and 5.56x45mm NATO.

See the below table for more information.

NIJ Level IIa NIJ Level II NIJ Level IIIa NIJ Level III NIJ Level IV
Areal Density 3.5 kg/m 4.2 kg/m 5.9 kg/m 25.9 kg/m 32.5 kg/m
Thickness 4mm 5mm 6mm 15mm 20mm
.22mm short x x x x x
.9mm x x x x x
.45mm x x x x x
.380mm x x x x x
.38mm x x x x x
.22mm long x x x x
.44 Magnum x x x
.30 Carbine x x
5.56mm x x
7.62mm NATO x x
.30-06 x x
.30 Armor Piercing (M2 AP) x

Hard armor will likely be unnecessary for Firefighters; the extra weight and bulk may prove to be a hindrance in the punishing environments they work in. However, for the most extreme threats, these armors are unmatched in protection.

For more information on ballistic protection and NIJ Levels, visit the NIJ’s Official Documentation.