Home > Baliistic Protection > Advancements in body armour can come quickly enough for sweltering officers – Posted Toronto

Advancements in body armour can come quickly enough for sweltering officers – Posted Toronto

By Michael McKiernan, National Post

When Constable Hugh Smith was a member of the Toronto Police Service bike patrol, he was embarrassed constantly. Those were the days officers wore light blue shirts — all the better to show sweat stains. The problem wasn’t his constant cycling — it was his body armour.

“The material is not breathable at all, so you find yourself almost constantly rehydrating. By the end of the day, it’s soaked with sweat,” said Const. Smith, now an officer with Toronto Police Service’s public information unit.

His Canadian Body Armour Ltd. brand vest is produced by Pacific Safety Products, which supplies body armour to about 70% of police and security forces in Canada. The vests contain panels made from layers of tightly spun Kevlar. The synthetic fibre was developed in a DuPont laboratory for its high strength and extreme heat resistance, making it perfect for use in racing tires and NASA launch vehicles. But when wrapped around a police officer’s torso, the insulation locks in body heat, making for some uncomfortable hot summer days.

On the plus side, the 5mm-thick panels provide bullet protection comparable with steel, while weighing five times less.

That’s still too much weight to carry for Const. Shona Patterson, who spent a recent day searching for shade outside the University Avenue courthouse.

“It’s so heavy, which makes things worse,” she said. “And it hasn’t even been that hot this year. When it hits 30 degrees, it feels like you’re melting out here.”

Const. Smith says he appreciates his indoor posting at Toronto Police’s air-conditioned downtown headquarters on College Street. The force’s light blue shirts have been dropped in favour of a darker, stain-hiding navy blue version, but replacing the body armour is not an option, according to George Tucker, director of uniform field services with the Toronto Police Association.

“They save lives and they offer reassurance,” he said. “I think every officer realizes how critical they are as part of the uniform.”

Mr. Tucker joined the police in 1980, four years before body armour was introduced in Toronto on a voluntary basis. By the early 1990s, it had become mandatory. He says that vest technology has progressed since then and continues to improve.

“They were a lot more cumbersome then and the protection was minimal unless you wore the full outfit, which was two panels in the front and two in the back. Now we’re down to single panels,” he said. “The industry is driven by making the equipment lighter and easier to wear. It’s a constant battle between safety and comfort.”

According to Mr. Tucker, a safety scandal in the United States has set back the cause of comfortable body armour in recent years. In the late 1990s, police forces in several states adopted vests made from Zylon, a new lightweight synthetic material. Then in 2003, a police officer in Forest Hills, Pa., suffered serious injuries when his Zylon vest failed. The incident prompted an investigation by the National Institute of Justice and a rewrite for body armour regulations.

Vests in Toronto easily meet the minimum standard, which demands that a vest withstand a bullet fired from the officer’s own firearm, and Const. Smith understands the tendency to err on the side of safety.

“A lighter vest is not always going to mean a stronger one, and you don’t want to be taking any risks with the ballistics,” he said.

Advancement can’t come quickly enough though for Const. Patterson, who is counting down the days until the end of the summer.

“In winter, when it gets down to minus 20, at least you can layer up,” she said.

Photo of Toronto Police Officer Const. Hugh Smith at Toronto Police Headquarters, 50 College St. by Brett Gundlock / National Post

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