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Personal Protective Equipment
 for Hostile Environments:
A Primer on Gas Masks, Ballistic Vests,
Helmets, Hearing Protection & Other Protective Gear

Copyright 2023 by Michael Brochstein

Let me state up front that I am not an expert. I have carefully researched what is discussed in this article for the purpose of purchasing protective equipment which I then used 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, hearing protection, first aid kits, formal training and other relevant topics. 

As background, it was my experience with tear gas while working as a photojournalist 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. Two trips to Ukraine to photograph what was going on there during the war that started in February 2022 led to my research, subsequent purchases and use of other equipment discussed in this article. 

This 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 for. It will also be relevant for the staff of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) as they may also work in hostile environments.

Please note that any specific items and vendors mentioned below do not imply a recommendation (unless otherwise stated) and that the author has no financial interest in any of the items, vendors or websites mentioned in this article.

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 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.

A gas mask needs to cover your eyes, nose and mouth. Gas masks are designed to protect against some combination of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear threats which are commonly abbreviated as CBRN. Its transparent shield that covers your eyes may also be designed to withstand a certain amount of impact before breaking.

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 eye damage if the contact lenses are 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 (there is the possibility with tear gas of contact lenses melting to your eyeball!). 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 very short temples and therefore there do not compromise of the mask's seal against your face.

Gas Mask Notes:
- Facial hair can compromise gas mask seal.
- Condensation could indicate a bad seal.
- Practice using your gas mask with your equipment (i.e. camera).
- There is a limited quantity of air available thru a gas mask - you can't run.
- Test the seal by covering (i.e. with your hand) the gas mask filter port and trying to breathe in.
- Practice putting on your gas mask as you may have very limited time to put it on when you actually need to.

Something else to have handy are wipes such as Sudecon Decontamination Wipes which 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 (FYI, I have never had any need to use or try out these wipes).

A skateboard style helmet (discussed below) and a Mestel Safety SGE 400/3 gas mask with a Mestel Safety Multipurpose 40mm Threaded filter attached to it.

LEFT: A full cut ballistic helmet (discussed below). (Photo: Wikipedia)
RIGHT: A skateboard style helmet and a Mestel Safety SGE 400/3 gas mask without a filter attached. Note that the person pictured is wearing regular eyeglasses. As discussed above, these can compromise the seal of a gas mask.

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.

A typical bump cap. A hard plastic shell with small vents and a thin foam cushion. It is easy to conceal under various hats.

Levels 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 National Institute of Justice. The three levels that are relevant are Levels IIIA, III and IV.

Level IIIA - will protect against most hand guns
Level III - will protect against "7.62mm NATO FMJ lead core rifle ammunition", AK-47's
Level IV - will protect against armor piercing bullets

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 rifles.

There are generally two categories of armor, soft armor and hard armor. Soft armor is a very thick and heavy material that can bend to a degree and conform to the shape of a human body. Hard armor is rigid and not at all flexible and typically comes in the form of plates that go into plate carriers (discussed below). 

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. 

Plate 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. 

Hard armor plates. They are generally curved to conform to a human body (they do not bend) and shaped like those above. They are meant to be used with the strike face facing outward. (Photo: Wikipedia)

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 or more). 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). Avoid steel plates as they can be heavier and bullets can splatter and create shrapnel that will hit other parts of your body not protected by your vest.

The selection of a soft versus hard armor vest might depend on the circumstances you expect to use it in. If in civilian circumstances then protection against military rifles is (we hope!?) less of concern than protection against handguns. If in a conflict zone with soldiers then protection against military rifles is probably necessary (level III or above).

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.

Plate carriers typically come in various colors and patterns including solid beige (called "coyote" sometimes), green and black as well as in camouflage patterns. The above vest takes 10"x12" plates in front and back and 6"x6" plates on the sides. (Photo: Wikipedia)

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine wearing a plate carrier which I assume has armor plates installed inside its pockets. Note that President Zelenskyy is wearing his vest in the proper position, not too low. (Photo: The Presidential Office of Ukraine )

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 more expensive) and BulletSafe's Bulletproof Vest VP3 Level IIIA soft armor vest.

Ballistic Helmets

Ballistic 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. 

An advantage of high cut helmets is that they leave the ear exposed. This allows the mounting of various accessories including communications devices and earmuff style hearing protection to cover your ears. These helmets may also be lighter than full-cut helmets as they cover less of your head. On the downside they protect less of your head than a full-cut helmet does.

Ballistic helmets come in a range of levels of protection, from IIIA to IV. Most on the market today are Level IIIA.

Ballistic helmets usually allow the mounting of side rails and a mount in front. The mount in front is called a "shroud" or a NVG (night vision goggles) mount as that is its most common use. The front mount can also allow the mounting of accessories such as a GoPro camera or a headlamp.

The side rails are commonly used for earmuff style hearing protection (which may also have an integrated microphone for radio communications) and small directional lights. The brackets that attach to the side rails to hold earmuff style 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 protection.

A high cut ballistic helmet with side rails holding arms that connect to over the ear hearing protection (discussed below). The arms pivot so that the hearing protection can pivot up and rest on the helmet when the wearer does want the hearing protection to cover their ears. Note the tan cover over a black helmet and the safety glasses.

Personal Recommendations: Princeton Tec VIZZ 550 RGB MPLS headlamp

What Color Vest and Helmet to Buy

I've heard various opinions about what color vest and helmet is "best". One opinion is that if you are not a combatant (i.e. soldier) then you may want dress so you will not be mistaken for one. Alternatively, some say that not standing out, wearing colors similar to those you may be embedded with (soldiers, law enforcement) could make one safer. Another opinion is that light colored vests may be cooler in hot and sunny environments (i.e. in a desert during the summer).

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 quite different (i.e. from soldiers or law enforcement) could make one safer. Lastly, inexpensive helmet covers are available that effectively change the exterior color or the helmet. Plate carriers are relatively inexpensive compared with plates and one can own more than one plate carrier while using only one set of plates. The use or non-use of "PRESS" patches (discussed below) can aid in standing out or blending in.

Eye Protection

Levels IIIA, III and IV of protection are not available in eyewear / eyeglasses. 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.

The minimum level of protection for shatter resistance one should look for is ANSI Z87.1. This, like other standards discussed here, specify the minimum level of force necessary to shatter a pair of eyeglasses. The current military standard is MIL-PRF-32432. Below are the minimum standards necessary for eyeglasses and goggles to meet these standards. As you can see, there is a large gap between the ANSI standard and the military standard.

ANSI Z87+ glasses are shot with a large and slow steel ball at 1.1 Joules
ANSI Z87+ goggles are shot with a large and slow steel ball at 4.4 Joules
MIL-PRF-32432 glasses are shot with a small and fast steel penetrator at 7.4 Joules
MIL-PRF-32432 goggles are shot with a small and fast steel penetrator at 15.5 Joules

You can easily buy off the shelf non-prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses from a multiple of manufacturers that meet the above standards.

Prescription 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.

People who want a prescription set of eyeglasses or sunglasses have a few options to get a military level of protection. There are wrap around style military standard conforming sun/eyeglasses that have a military standard level of protection. These frames have a space behind them to mount a set of prescription eyeglasses in a special frame. The frame's outer wrap around lens does the protection and the inner lens does the prescription correction.

Other options for prescription eyeglass wearers include wearing military standard goggles over prescription glasses, wearing a face shield that conforms to the military standard of protection, or wearing over-spec glasses. Over-spec glasses are eyeglasses that are worn over one's prescription eyeglasses - conceptually similar to wearing goggles over one's eyeglasses.

Note that this model does not provide side protection.
Wrap-around style glasses provide side protection.

Over-Specs. This model meets MIL specs.

Personal recommendations: WileyX, Champion Over-Specs Ballistic Shooting Glasses

Hearing Protection

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 higher the db rating. The decibel scale is a logarithmic one such that sound volume doubles or halves 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 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 eardrum.

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.

Finally, while certain other body parts can heal or grow back (i.e. a broken arm), hearing loss can be permanent and non-reversible so do take care of your hearing.

In-ear hearing protection (a.k.a. earplugs)

Over the ear hearing protection with its headband intact.
Note the bad seal by wearing it over a hat (don't do that!).

Personal recommendation: The author has had good experience using a 3M Peltor 300.

Individual First Aid Kits (IFAK's)

Depending on where you are, carrying an Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK) may be warranted and possibly required in some areas. There are many available and I suggest one oriented towards the kinds of injuries seen in conflict zones. If the kit you are considering does not include a tourniquet then it is not the kind of first aid kit you should be considering. Google "IFAK Kit" to get a sense of the many IFAK kits available. Some people carry a tourniquet outside of their kit for faster access.

Everlit Advanced Trauma Kit

Personal recommendation: Everlit Advanced Trauma Kit shown above (the blue gloves are not the same ones that come with the kit but otherwise the kit shown above is original).

Blood Type Patches

It is common to see soldiers and journalists in conflict zones wearing hook and loop patches that display their blood type (i.e. "A+"). There are many available (i.e. from Amazon) in various sizes, shapes and colors.


There is specialized training available for journalists and others who work in hostile environments. There most common courses offered are HEAT (Hostile Environment Awareness training ) and HEFAT (Hostile Environment and Emergency First Aid Training).

Personal recommendation: Take a three day HEFAT class! The author took a three-day HEFAT class with GJS and recommends it.

"PRESS" Patches

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 typically 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, vests, 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. I have kept my PRESS patches inside my backpacks not seeing any advantage to using them in some circumstances and in other circumstances (i.e. when visiting military units in a conflict zone) have worn them.

Hook and loop PRESS patches for use when one wants to be readily identifiable as a member of the press. The ones pictured above are 9 - 11 inches in width. The author found ones like these on Amazon and ebay.

 Suggested Reading

Personal recommendation: How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone by Rosie Garthwaite

Video Presentation

See a 28 minute video presentation of this article here (alternative link here).

Photo Gallery
A Mestel Safety Multipurpose 40mm Threaded gas mask filter.   Sudecon Decontamination Wipes. Read instructions before use!
A Mestel Safety SGE 400/3 gas mask with a Mestel Safety Multipurpose 40mm Threaded gas mask filter. Also shown are prescription eyeglasses mounted inside the gas mask in a frame designed for this specific gas mask.   Prescription eyeglasses in a frame (Mestel Safety designed Optical Lens Support) specifically designed to mount inside a Mestel Safety SGE 400/3 gas mask. The short temples avoid the problem of compromising the seal of the mask.
A full cut ballistic helmet with side side rails and hook and loop (a.k.a. Velcro) fasteners.   The NVG (Night Vision Goggle) mount on the front of a full cut ballistic helmet.
There are generally two ways to fit a helmet. On the left, the helmet has a set of removable pads that are attached by hook and loop (a.k.a. Velcro) fasteners inside the helmet. Alternative pad sets are sold (i.e. by Amazon) that may be different in thickness allowing the helmet to be adjusted to best fit a particular person's head. The helmet on the right uses a rotary dial in the back to adjust the fit of the helmet (similar to many bicycling helmets). The author recommends helmets with a rotary dial in the rear.
Over the ear hearing protection designed for shooting is very effective for protecting one's hearing. Shown above is over-the-ear headphone style hearing protection, specifically a 3M Peltor 300.   An advantage of high-cut helmets is the ability to mount hearing protection on them. The brackets (usually sold separately) attach to the side rails and to each over-the-ear hearing protection. Shown above is a 3M Peltor 300 and associated 3M brackets (brackets may be specific to each brand of hearing protection) with its headpiece removed and the remaining parts mounted on the helmet.
The brackets are designed to rotate (right image) and have multiple positions so that they can be tight around one's ears or hanging away from them when they are not being used. Rotating them allows one to move the hearing protection totally away from one's ears.
When storing the helmet the brackets can be positioned to allow a minimal profile.   A headlamp can be mounted on the NVG mount in the front of the helmet.
A Princeton Tec VIZZ 550 RGB MPLS headlamp. Note that a red light option is useful at night.   A side view of a Princeton Tec VIZZ 550 RGB MPLS headlamp along with its NVG mounting bracket.
A plate carrier (left) with side panels designed to hold 6"x6" side plates. When the side panels are removed there remains an adjustable wide nylon strap (shown on right). Taking off the side panels makes the vest easier and faster to put on and take off. Shown above is a Legacy Safety and Security's "Tactical Vest with Cummberbund" plate carrier with Level III plates inside (plates not visible in these photos). The "PRESS" patches were added by the author and do not come with the plate carrier.
A Bulletproof Vest VP3 Level IIIA soft armor ballistic vest. Some of the hook & loop patches were added by the author.   A 10x12" level III plate.
Plates are curved to help conform to a human body.   The rear of a 10x12" level III plate.
A typical Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK), the inside is shown above. The kit shown here is a Everlit Advanced Trauma Kit. The author added two of the patches shown in the above image.    
Feedback / Questions: Please feel free to email Michael Brochstein with any comments, suggestions and/or questions.
Full Disclosure: This is to let you know that the author has no financial interest in any of the items, vendors or websites mentioned on this page.

Michael Brochstein is an independent photojournalist based in Washington, DC and New York City.


 Last update: 12/17/2023

Copyright © 2023 Michael Brochstein. All rights reserved.