Body Armor

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Southern Lebanon, 2006
Southern Lebanon, 2006.

The most important thing to remember about body armor is this: Bulletproof vests are not bullet proof. Body armor may stop some projectiles, but one can still suffer serious injury or die as a result of the blunt trauma inflicted by high-caliber or high-velocity bullets.

Journalists should consider in advance whether they may require body armor, and what kind or level of protection they may need.

Body armor is primarily categorized according to a six-level system of threats that was developed by the U.S. National Institute of Justice. Most manufacturers use this system to rate body armor.

Also remember: Protective gear must be properly maintained. Anti-ballistic ceramic plates can crack if dropped or mishandled. Kevlar vests and other gear must be kept dry.

One risk of wearing body armor is that it tends to be bulky and conspicuous. In a few places, such as Colombia, journalists say they avoid wearing such armor for fear of being mistaken for drug enforcement officials. Body armor is also relatively heavy, and in hot climates it can slow down the wearer.

Nonetheless, body armor is highly recommended in combat zones, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Afghanistan, where both cross fire and attacks on journalists are common. And body armor is always recommended wherever there may be shrapnel.

Each type of body armor is designed for a specific purpose. Some are designed to guard against knife attacks, which may be recommended when covering large street demonstrations. Other vests are manufactured to protect against short-range gunfire, which may be recommended for journalists facing the possibility of a targeted attack and for protection against shrapnel from hand grenades or mortar bombs.

Only ceramic or metal plates inserted into the center of the jackets will stop automatic or high-powered rifle fire. But keep in mind that there are special armor-piercing bullets that can penetrate ceramic and metal plates, and even with such plates worn in front and in back, only a portion of the body is protected.

Body armor prices vary depending upon protection level, weight, and durability. Journalists covering any military environment should use nothing less than a level III vest, as outlined by the U.S. National Institute of Justice.

Helmets

Journalists working in conflict zones should also consider wearing combat helmets, which provide effective protection from flying shrapnel. A helmet, however, will not stop a round fired by a military assault rifle.

Helmets shaped like baseball caps and designed for protection against riots, rock throwing, and similar unrest are available through special order by calling Centurion in the United Kingdom at +44 (0) 1264-355255 or +44 (0) 7000-221221.

Purchasing Body Armor

Journalists should shop carefully when purchasing body armor. Most vests useful for covering violent street activity (offering protection mainly in case of a stabbing) are under US$350. Vests designed to stop most handgun bullets cost about US$500. Vests rated for work in military zones cost from US$600 to US$2,000.

While most vests are made of Kevlar, Spectra, which floats in water, is becoming increasingly popular. (Even though Spectra floats in water, the vests deteriorate in water. Only special Spectra vests that are designed for military divers will not deteriorate in water. NP Aerospace also makes special anti-ballistic flotation vests designed for prolonged use in water.)

As for inserted plates, although ceramic plates are more expensive than steel ones, they tend to weigh less and are more likely to stop projectiles safely. Steel plates have a tendency to deflect projectiles upward toward the face or head.

NP Aerospace which has designed a jacket for journalists, produces one of the lightest ceramic plates currently available on the market. Its jackets for journalists come with a notebook pocket, along with an option for additional pockets and nonslip shoulder pads for camera operators.

If buying used body armor, always inspect it carefully for damage, especially bullet marks. Once a vest is fired upon, it must be discarded since it can no longer offer full protection.

The Web site run by the French firm Sema offers several useful images of different kinds of body armor, including three types recommended specifically for journalists.

For journalists based in the United States, Zero G Armorwear lists retailers of body armor throughout the United States on its Web site, http://www.bodyarmor.com. For journalists outside the United States, Zero G Armorwear has another site, http://www.safariland.com, listing retailers of body armor in many countries.

In addition to acquiring the right level of protection for a particular situation, journalists should also make sure that the vest or jacket fits properly. The U.K.’s Vest Guard offers a useful diagram for measuring oneself for body armor.

By the Committee to Protect Journalists