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A false sense of security? Body armour, part two.
Feature: 3/6/2006

Enlarge Image click hereAs we learned last week, investing in body armour can be complicated. The buyer can't just purchase generic, all-purpose armour and hope for the best; anti-stab vests won't protect against gunfire and ballistic vests won't stop a knife.

But it's not even as simple as that - there are different types of anti-stab and ballistic armour based on the anticipated threat.

Does the wearer just need protection from knives or are hypodermic needles a threat too? Will the gunfire be from handguns or rifles? What calibre bullets will be used? All of these questions - and more - must be asked before the correct type of armour can be selected.

So any decent armour firm will make sure that their armour is up to scratch and suitable for the required use before selling it on - after all, human lives are at stake.

But what of those other companies that only want to make money, even if someone has to die as a result? What is being done about them? The answer is, shockingly, virtually nothing at all.

Putting lives at risk
There are restrictions on the quality of body armour set out by the Home Enlarge Image click hereOffice, but these only apply if Enlarge Image click herearmour is to be sold for military or police use. If it is going to be sold to private companies or individuals, or even county councils, no legal restrictions apply. It's a dangerous loophole that could cost lives.

Cathriona Frawley, sales manager of body armour manufacturer Sioen, said: "It is a well known fact that there are many unscrupulous players in the body armour industry who are quite happy to recommend and sell uncertified and second-hand armour.

"There are many examples of end-users that have purchased various armours, including some US NIJ certified ‘ballistic only’ armour, in the belief that it will stop their main threat of knives and hypodermic needles.

"It is only when there is an attack/major incident or when a reputable Home Office-approved manufacturer speaks with these buyers that they then learn what they have actually purchased."

But even if it is apparently fit for purpose, second-hand armour should never be an option. Unbeknownst to many, armour has a limited shelf life of around five-to-ten years. If it purchased after the sell-by date, no guarantees can be given for its effectiveness.

Perhaps a more pressing point is that standards can change drastically from year to year and continue to be re-examined and altered to this day.

This means that a stab vest that might have been certified and approved in early 2003 would not pass the same tests today, due to a change in blades requirements.

Cathriona added: "Legally, the man in the street or the non-police or non-military customer can buy whatever he wants. But realistically, most of the non-HOSDB approved armour on the market leaves them open to a very high risk of serious injury or even possible death.

"If you don’t have the security of Home Office certification, you don’t have any back up in case of failure - and regarding the ‘re-cycled’ armour on the market, a very simple question can be asked here: ’would you buy a second hand parachute and jump out of a plane?'"

Christine Berry, director of armour specialist Teal Safety, added that one of the biggest factors in this issue is the ignorance of the public: "I don't like the idea of people being put at risk, but the fact is that most people don't know anything about body armour," she said. "If someone tells them that a ballistic vest will stop a knife, they'll believe it.

"There should be some legislation to cover this kind of con, especially when it's so easy to buy armour over the Internet.

"When we sell armour, we take registration details of the buyer so that if the worst happens, we can trace the armour back. You have try to make your own legislation." (To contact Teal Safety, call Christine Berry on +44 (0)1706 638855 for the UK or Stephen McCully on +44 (0) 7092 346824 for Ireland. Or e-mail sales@tealsafety.com)

But Steve Martin from TW Kempton's new armour brand, Fortis, was cynical about the chances of creating any successful legislation. He said: "We need some kind of law in place, but how to enforce is it another matter.

"We can enforce these things within EU guidelines, but how do you legislate for people selling over the Internet from places like China?" (To contact TW Kempton's Fortis Armour division, call Steve Martin on +44 (0)116 261 0001 or e-mail smartin@twkempton.co.uk)

Dangers at home
Enlarge Image click hereOf course, enough people are aware of the importance of Home Office standards - or can be convinced of such once shown what they require - that the armour industry remains in good health.

What is curious, though, is that even in these troubled times of Middle-Eastern wars, anti-terrorist raids and increased police presences across the UK, the biggest growth area for British armour sales is not police and military, but civilian and domestic use.

Steve of TW Kempton said: "We're finding that one of the problems in the UK is the growing knife culture. It's a sad fact of life that any company with a public interface needs to consider some form of protection for its employees.

"In fact, we have developed a stab-resistant product just for that market. We offer a guarantee that if it's damaged and we get a police report, we'll replace or repair it free of charge. We're getting a lot of interest from councils."

Cathriona of Sioen agreed: "The councils have been quite active; trading standards, licensing officers, environmental health inspectors and other employees are all seeing a greater need to look at providing and using body armour.

"There's more money in the illegal dumping business than there is in the heroin trade, so any environmental health inspectors looking into something like that are at risk of attack from potentially dangerous criminals.

"Also, trading standards inspectors who have to investigate illegal trading of CDs, DVDs and counterfeit clothing like football shirts or designer labels, often have to go into private properties and crowded markets to physically remove stock, which puts their personal safety in a more vulnerable position."

Another growth sector is the ambulance market. This is particularly important for lone workers in fast response units as they are often the first to arrive at an incident and don’t always know in advance what they will be facing.

Teal Safety's Christine explained: "It's sad but true: paramedics used to be able to go into the roughest pubs and most dangerous areas without fear. Now they are as big a target as anybody else, so they need extra protection. Their armour also needs to block hypodermic needles."

Selling armour abroad
Enlarge Image click hereDespite the increasing popularity of body armour in the UK, foreign markets remain a consistently good source of income. But selling to them is not easy.

Steve said: "There are very strict government guidelines on the sale of body armour. It's a restricted item because the Government worries that it may fall into the hands of terrorists or enemy soldiers.

"So wherever you export to, you have to apply for a licence to sell to that particular country. There are lists of countries that Britain is on friendly terms with, countries that we cannot sell to and countries that we may be able to sell to provided the government is happy with the specific buyer.

"The Americans are on the 'good guys' list, but if you tried to sell to Somalia or Iran, you would not get an export licence. If you did so anyway and customs found out, the penalties would be severe."

Steve is correct - the maximum penalty for attempting to smuggle prohibited items is 10 years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine.

Future technologies
Enlarge Image click hereSo that's what's happening at present, but what about the future? According to Christine of Teal Safety, predicting future developments in body armour is never easy.

She said: "It's a very reactive market and based entirely on end-user requirements. We could get a sudden influx of new ammunition on the streets or a new knife that improves penetration and then everyone is forced to change the way they manufacture armour for this country.

"But speaking generally, I think that body armour will continue to become lighter and more flexible without reducing levels of protection."

For some, the answer is to look into future technologies. Steve said: "TW Kempton is working with universities in order to improve materials and designs, and we have a partnership with Leicester De Montfort University for a two-year project on body armour."

Not that the focus is always on improving the armour's protection level. Cathriona of Sioen said: ‘’We are constantly looking at the next generation of armour and carriers, and a lot of what is initially developed for the technical sportswear market eventually gets diluted or adapted to be used in the mainstream PPE market.

"The future will include touch-control sensors, built in radio receivers, PDAs and printers, solar technology and many more radical, innovative solutions.’’

There are even more unusual applications for futuristic textiles, however - a form of 'liquid armour' is currently under development in the US that flows like liquid under normal conditions, but becomes solid when placed under sudden pressure, such as the impact from a bullet or weapon.

It does this by suspending nanoparticles in a non-evaporating fluid. When something hits the 'armour', the particles are forced together to create a solid, difficult to break membrane. The effect is rather like mixing corn flour with water to create a changeable substance.

The liquid also redistributes the force of the impact over a wide area, lessening the damager done to the wearer and sometimes stopping the bullet dead. The aim is to use it to treat the arms, legs and other unprotected parts of military uniforms.

But however complicated or clever future armour may be, it's a sad fact that just as much time, effort and money is being put into weapons that can be used to penetrate it - and while conflicts and crime exist, both will be in strong demand.

 

Author: James Wilkinson
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