Personal Protective Equipment
for Violent Situations:
|Copyright 2022 by Michael Brochstein|
Let me state up front that I am not an expert and that
I have never served in the military or worked in law enforcement.
What I have done is research what is discussed in this article for the
purpose of purchasing protective equipment for use in my work as a
photojournalist. In this article I will discuss gas masks, ballistic
vests, ballistic and other types of protective helmets and bump caps,
protective eyewear and hearing protection.
As background, I am a
photojournalist and it was my experience with tear gas while
photographing at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 that led to my
researching and purchasing of a gas mask. That incident and some other
violent demonstrations also led me to purchase a protective helmet. A
trip to Ukraine to photograph what was going on there during the war
that started in February 2022 led to my research and subsequent
purchases of other equipment discussed in this article.
article is written with journalists in mind. Journalists may be present
at violent demonstrations, riding along with law enforcement and/or in
conflict zones and it is those scenarios that this article is written
Gas Masks, Gas Mask Filters & Decontamination Wipes
I am lucky in
that I have had as of this writing only one day in my life where I
experienced the use of tear gas and I was lucky not to be very near
where tear gas containers spewing the gas were landed. Even at a
distance, I experienced quite a bit of discomfort in my throat and eyes,
an experience that I do not wish to experience again.
Attached to a gas mask is an easily removable filter through which you breathe. Filters have a finite life and need to be replaced after a certain amount of use or age. Filters are also designed to protect against some combination of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. Most masks use a standard NATO 40mm threaded gas filter which means that there are many available to pick from as most gas masks and filters on the market follow this standard.
Prescription eyeglass wearers need to be aware that wearing regular style eyeglasses can compromise the seal of a gas mask against your face. The eyeglass temples (the side pieces that go horizontally from the lens frame to your ears) can disrupt the seal of a gas mask against your face and let in gasses that you wish to keep out (which is why you wear a gas mask in the first place).
There are at least three solutions for eyeglass wearers; One is to not wear any eyeglasses. Another possible solution is to wear contact lenses. This is a bad option as the combination of tear gas and contact lenses can lead to increased pain and possible damage if left in for a long time - in short, avoid wearing contact lenses if there is any possibility that they will come in contact with tear gas. The last option that I know of is, for certain gas masks (such as the SGE 400/3 mentioned below), is to buy special lens frames that are made for your specific gas mask. These frames mount inside a mask and have no temples and therefore there is no compromise of the mask's seal against your face.
else to have handy are wipes such as
Sudecon Decontamination Wipes
can be used to wipe tear gas and other irritation agents off your skin
(but not your eyes!!!!!).
Personal Recommendation: After doing a lot of research and later talking to other gas mask owners (all photojournalists) I bought a Mestel Safety SGE 400/3 gas mask and Mestel Safety Multipurpose 40mm Threaded filters for it. I bought the mask and filters from Approved Gas Masks. I also bought Sudecon Decontamination Wipes from Amazon (FWIW, I have never had any need to use or try out these wipes).
Protective (non Ballistic) Helmets & Bump Caps
If what you are concerned about protecting your head from are
bumps, falls or being hit on the head (in a non friendly manner) then a
bump cap or a skateboard style helmet may be all you need to protect
your head. Please note that I used the word "may" in the previous
statement. Bump caps and skateboard style helmets are not designed and
will not likely protect you from someone swinging a full size axe, a
sledgehammer or using a sharp knife with a lot of force. They will also
certainly not stop bullets. On the positive side, they are relatively
inexpensive and readily available.
Bump caps are hollow half shells (possibly made out of hard plastic) that go inside a hat. Their advantage is that they are inexpensive, light and can be hidden below a regular hat. They won't likely have any padding but do provide some level of protection. A skateboard helmet (which resembles some bicycle helmets) will provide more protection. There are obviously other styles of helmets (construction, football, hockey etc etc) available and each of them provide some level of protection.
Before we can discuss ballistic vests and helmets
we need to understand levels of protection. Fortunately there are
standard levels of protection that were created by the
Institute of Justice. The three levels that are relevant are Levels
IIIA, III and IV.
Level IIIA - will protect against most hand
One might reasonably argue that they should
buy the highest level of protection available. The downside to this
strategy is weight and cost as higher degrees of protection generally
cost and weigh more. As you can't ask an attacker to wait while you don
your protective gear, you need to consider how comfortable you will be
wearing protective gear for a long while.
Note that manufacturers use the term "ballistic" and not "bulletproof" to describe their products.
Ballistic Vests, Plate Carriers, & Plates
When selecting a vest to protect you against bullets and/or
being stabbed by a knife there are various choices to make. One is
whether your vest needs to be easily concealable. Another is what are
the threats that you are trying to protect yourself from. These might
include knife attacks, hand guns, long guns (rifles), and/or military
Soft armor vests usually have pockets for the insertion of (hard)
armor plates that can upgrade the vest's level of protection (plates
are discussed below). I have seen many options for Level IIIA soft armor
vests but have not seen any for Level III or IV. Soft armored vests may
be larger than armored plates. They cover and protect more of one's body
than plates as they can also, to a degree, wrap around a body. They may
also protect, to a degree, against knife stabs.
Hard armor is
rigid, non-flexible, and can protect against higher levels of threat
than what soft armor is generally capable of. It generally comes in the
form of plates that can be inserted (sometimes) into soft armor vests
but in most cases are inserted into plate carriers.
carriers are vests designed specifically for holding rigid armored
plates. The vests themselves are lighter than soft armored vests and
don't themselves offer protection against bullets or knives. It is the
plates that can be inserted into them that provide the protection.
There are three standard sizes of plates. The most common size is 10" x 12". Some vests can take a larger size of 11" x 14". Finally, there are also 6" x 6" sized plates meant to go into side pockets. Typically two 10" x 12" plates are used, one in front and one in back. Plates are designed to protect one's vital organs and not protect one's entire upper torso and arms. Ballistic armor is available to protect other parts of one's body beyond what a typical plate carrier vest with hard armored plates can protect but that is beyond the scope of this article.
One might ask why not use a soft armored vest and
insert hard armor plates into it so that more of one's body is protected
than with a plate carrier and hard armored plates alone. The simple
answer is weight as a soft armored Level IIIA vest might weigh almost
five pounds and two 10"x12" plates (front & back) together might weigh
about 6.5 pounds for a total of eleven pounds (BTW, two Level IV plates
alone might weigh 8.5 pounds). A plate carrier is much lighter than a
Level IIIA soft armor vest. As a plate carrier covers less of one's body
it also may be cooler (temperature, not fashion) to wear.
Please note that plates of the same level of protection will vary in
weight as different manufacturers use different materials and processes
to create them. Plates can range in price even at the same level of
protection because of this as well as for other reasons (i.e. marketing
and brand reputation).
Soft armor vests may be easier to conceal within one's clothing. If you wish to wear a ballistic vest under a shirt then soft armor may be your only option. On the other hand, if you expect to wear an overcoat then both soft and hard armor may be easy to conceal.
Personal Recommendations: Legacy Safety and Security's "Tactical Vest with Cummberbund" plate carrier and Level III plates (they also make level IV plates that are very similar albeit heavier) and BulletSafe's Bulletproof Vest VP3 Level IIIA soft armor vest.
helmets come in three basic shapes; full-cut, mid-cut and high-cut. The
difference is in how much of your head do they cover and therefore
protect. The full cut covers the most and a high cut covers the least.
Most ballistic helmets available today are either full-cut or low-cut.
Ballistic helmets come in a range of levels of protection, from IIIA
to IV. Most on the market today are Level IIIA.
helmets usually allow the mounting of side rails and a mount in front
(also called a "shroud"). These allow the mounting of accessories such
as night vision goggles, possibly a GoPro camera, flashlights,
communications devices and earmuff style hearing protection. The mounts
for hearing protection usually allow the earmuffs to pivot out of the
way and rest on the helmet when the wearer does not wish to use hearing
I've heard various opinions about what color vests and helmets to buy. One opinion is that you want to stand out and not look like soldiers so a light colored helmet and vest may be best. Another opinion is that light colored vests may be cooler in hot and sunny environments. Still another opinion is that one should choose colors that don't attract attention in the area you will be. As a native of New York City I personally like the last opinion as that, for me, seems safest but recognize that in some circumstances looking different from soldiers could make one safer.
Eyewear / Eyeglasses
Levels IIIA, III and IV of protection are not available in
eyewear. There is no technology yet that can create a workable pair of
eyeglasses that offers that level of protection and still be usable on a
practical level. There are however standards, both civilian and
military, that specify a level of shatter resistance that is most likely
much better than the shatter resistance offered by a regular pair of
sunglasses or prescription eyeglasses.
ANSI Z87+ glasses are shot with a large and slow steel ball at 1.1
eyeglasses pose a practical problem as each prescription denotes a
different shape lens. Testing every possible prescription variation
against these standards is virtually impossible given the huge number of
prescriptions that are possible. One can get prescription glasses in
military standard conforming frames but the lenses will only be ANSI
standard conforming. My understanding is that members of the (US)
military who wear prescription eyeglasses / sunglasses get ANSI standard
lenses in military standard frames and that the (US) military accepts
this for most purposes.
In general there are two types of hearing
protection, in-ear (also called earplugs) and over-the-ear, the latter
look like headphones or earmuffs. All of them are rated in terms of
their ability to reduce the level of sound reaching your eardrum. This
reduction is measured in decibels (db) with the larger the reduction,
the larger the db rating. The decibel scale is a logarithmic one such
that sound volume doubles every three decibels. While different models
of hearing protection may have ratings that are close, keep in mind that
a difference of just a few decibels can in fact be a noticeable
difference in sound protection,
There is hearing protection
specifically designed for hearing protection where shooting is involved.
This type of hearing protection is designed to allow hearing of normal
conversation to be heard but will compress or clip sound that is louder
than a certain amount. This type of hearing protection is called active
hearing protection and involves a battery powered in-ear or over the ear
style hearing protector which listens to the sound it lets in and stops
sound that is louder than a certain amount before it reaches your
A note of caution; if using in-ear hearing
protection, get ones with a cord that connects the two earplugs as this will make
it easier to extract the ear plugs from your ear. The author once
unknowingly used an earplug that was too small for his ear. Getting them
out was not easy and involved a long-nose set of pliers and, for one
ear, the help of a friend as one can not see their own ear.
Personal recommendation:3M Peltor Sport Tactical series of over-the-ear headphone/earmuff style hearing protection devices.
It is common to
see various hook & loop (i.e. Velcro) patches being worn in military
environments. You might have also seen members of the press with large
patches saying "PRESS" visible so as to identify them. Unfortunately,
the use of "PRESS" patches can also be an easy target for someone who is
targeting the press.
Plate carriers (discussed above), ballistic helmets, and military style backpacks many times have hook & loop areas on them so that one can attach patches. Personally, I have added large hook & loop (Velcro) surfaces to various camera backpacks and helmets. I also own PRESS patches of various sizes. Whether to use them depends on whether the use of them would make you safer or attract unwanted attention. So far, in my limited experience, I have kept my PRESS patches inside my backpacks and have not seen any advantage to using them - but your experiences may differ from mine.
Michael Brochstein is an independent photojournalist based in Washington, DC and New York City.
Last update: 6/29/2022
Copyright © 2022 Michael Brochstein. All rights reserved.