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Body Armour for Fire Departments

As one of western Canada’s largest body armour providers, we regularly get questions about armour protection levels, and generally how armour works.

The Armour industry can be quite complex and there are a LOT of confusing terms used by suppliers and manufacturers.

While law enforcement agencies have Quartermasters and equipment officers who are used to dealing with armour, the whole armour topic is very foreign to most Fire/Rescue departments. 

First, it’s important to know how armour is certified. The US National Institute of Justice (NIJ) publishes standards that armour manufacturers are expected to follow. 

Similar in nature to NFPA standards, NIJ is not law, but these standards are definitely important as they provide minimum standards for armour performance. Armour manufacturers then design and manufacture their armour to meet or exceed these standards, and then send their armour to a third-party, independent laboratory (a lab that is certified by NIJ) to perform the testing. 

We would suggest that, if looking for armour, don’t even consider an armour system that isn’t NIJ certified. NIJ can also revoke the certification for a company or a piece of armour should it fail any tests, and this is not an uncommon occurrence.  Most bid specifications in the Law Enforcement world require NIJ certification as a minimum.

The NIJ revises its standards every 10 years or so. The current standard (in 2016) for soft armour is NIJ 0101.06. Rifle plates have a different standard. If you want to download the entire NIJ standard document, it’s available on the web; just search for NIJ 0101.06 standard or click here for the PDF.

Note that there are some companies that sell armour that is NOT NIJ certified. They use phrases like “NIJ qualified” or “designed to surpass NIJ standards”. If the armour could pass NIJ tests, the manufacturer would test it with NIJ and have it certified.

You should only be buying NIJ certified armour. If in doubt, ask the manufacturer for the NIJ certification documents. These are not proprietary documents so the vendor should be able to provide them to you. 

Don’t accept statements like “We are working on NIJ certification”.  Under NIJ rules the manufacturer is not permitted to sell armour until it has been certified. Most reputable armour vendors will not release their armour for sale until the NIJ Certification letter arrives. Note that each model of armour from the manufacturer will have its own certification sheet. There is also a database of certified armour here.

Here are the various levels:

Soft Armour

  • Ballistic Level II –  The NIJ standard for Level II is a 9mm FMJ 124gr round, and a .357 Magnum JPS 158gr round
  • Ballistic Level IIIA – The NIJ standard is a .357 Sig FMJ 125gr and a .44 mag SJHP 240 gr.

Note that soft armour is available in Level II and Level IIIA. Many people mistakenly think that soft armour is Level II and Level III but this is not accurate. Agreed, it’s not a great naming system but we didn’t make it up. Blame the US Government.

Also note that there is no soft armour that will stop rifle rounds. To stop rifle rounds, you need some kind of hard armour, whether it’s a trauma plate or a full Level III or IV plate.


Hard Armour

  • ae-rifle-plate-page-delta-e1427566664425.pngLevel III – 7.62mm FMJ steel jacketed (known an an “M80”) 147gr.  Note that a Level III rifle plate is required to stop SIX rounds of this threat in order to pass.
  • Level IV – .30 cal Armour Piercing (AP) 166gr rounds.  Level IV armour is required to stop only ONE shot of this threat.


Rifle Plate selection

A common discussion we have with police departments: Is Level IV “better” than Level III? Unlike soft armour, where IIIA is better than II (in terms of protection), that’s not the case with rifle plates. They are not necessarily better — just different. 

Level III plates are tested to 6 rounds of standard .308 ‘ball’ rifle ammunition.  

Level IV plates are tested to one round of .308 cal AP (armour piercing).  Typically, most police in Canada don’t see AP rounds on the street, so this may not be the best option for most police agencies in Canada. 

Level IV plates are typically thicker, heavier, and more expensive than Level III. In addition, they are only available in a ceramic core, whereas Level III is available in ceramic or the lighter and less-fragile Polyethylene (if your plates spend their lives in the trunk of a car, maybe a non-fragile PE plate would be better suited to the application?).

For customers who rarely use their armour (as opposed to Police, who wear armour 12 hours a day), steel plates may be an attractive option.  They can be inexpensive, nearly impossible to destroy by accidental dropping, etc., and have long warranties.  Their only downside is that they weigh about 8 lbs each (compared to polyethylene or ceramic-hybrid plates at about 2.5-5 lbs each).   

Before selecting your rifle plates, stop to consider what type of threats you expect to be facing. IV is not always better than III.

Stab Threats

It's important to note that Ballistic armour (level II and IIIA) is not generally rated to stop stab / edged-weapon threats.  You could think that, because it'll stop a bullet, it should stop a knife, right?  The difference is that bullets are generally round-nosed (or they expand to a round/flat nose shape upon impact) so the soft armour 'catches' the bullet in a similar fashion to a baseball into a glove.   Edged weapons are pointy and sharp so they can cut the ballistic material and penetrate the vest.  If you are concerned about Stab or edged-weapon threats, please contact us to discuss options to defeat these threats.

Considerations for Fire services

Fire Rescue services usually have different requirements for armour than Police agencies do.  In a Police department, armour is sized for, and issued to, an individual member.  Fire services generally use "pool" armour - armour vests shared by a number of users.  If you are considering armour, it's important to realize that Police carriers (the "carrier" is the fabric part that physically holds the ballistic panels) are sized specifically for the wearer and that likely won't work for your Fire department unless all your firefighters happen to be the same size!  Adjustability of the carrier is VERY important.  Most Police-oriented carriers adjust a couple inches around the waist (+/- 3" or so is normal).  A carrier specifically made for Fire services will have a much wider adjustment capability, usually about 10" or so.   The Armor Express Hard Core FE is such a carrier.  

Carrier colour;  police usually use Black or "LAPD Blue" (a very dark blue) uniform colours.  To avoid being mistaken for police, we would recommend that Fire services use a colour similar to your turnout gear, or a colour such as Red.  Ideally, having an armour carrier that is the same colour as your turnout gear, and even including reflective striping, will help reduce confusion at complex response scenes.  Black gear is also very hard to see at night if it happens to be laying on the ground!

As with anything in the armour world, there is a balance between 3 factors;

  • Weight
  • Protection
  • Price

Since armour isn't worn for 12 hours straight, Fire services may choose to have armour that is a bit heavier than a Police armour system, but comes at a lower price.  A typical Fire armour package would consist of something like this;

NFPA 3000

As you might imagine, NFPA has published a standard for body armour.  The standard number is 3000, and it is somewhat unclear in that it appears to require Level IIIA soft armour but doesn't give many more details than that.  For example, there is no requirement for a REAR ballistic panel in your vest, just a front panel, which seems very curious.


Helmets are an important part of an armour system.  This topic can be quite confusing so if you're considering helmets as part of your armour package, please contact us and we'll walk you through it.

Legal Considerations

In British Columbia, armour is a controlled good and is regulated by the BC Ministry of Justice under the Body Armour Control Act.  This Act is designed to keep armour out of the hands of gangsters and other nefarious individuals, yet allow armour purchase and possession by people who need it.

A few summary notes about the Act;

Body Armour Supply companies;

  • Armour can only be sold by a company that is licensed in BC as a Body Armour Sales company
  • Sales reps within the company must also be licensed as a Body Armour Salesperson
  • Fines for selling armour without a license (company or individual) range up to $100,000

Buying and Possessing body armour;

  • Armour can be purchased by or for "a government employee, and wearing armour is required or allowed on the job"
  • Police, Sheriff, Conservation Officer, Peace officers, etc.
  • Various classifications of holders of valid Ministry of Justice security licenses (private investigators, etc.)
  • Anyone who holds a valid Federal Firearms License (PAL)
  • Anyone with a valid exemption permit issued by the Ministry

The first point above covers any federal, provincial, or municipal employee.  The Act indicates that valid possession is only while the person is at work, though, not for personal use while not at work.  

While some Turnout Gear manufacturers are selling body armour, most are not licensed to sell armour in BC.  This is a very serious offence in the Province.  The Province has a list of licensed Security Businesses and Security Workers online here. Note that to sell armour, a business or individual must specifically have a "Body Armour Sales" endorsement on their security license.  An example is shown here...

Armour license 1.JPG


Ongoing Armour Management

Armour typically has a "performance warranty" of 5 years.  Some steel rifle plates have a warranty of 10 years.  This means that the manufacturer will guarantee that the armour will stop its rated threats during that warranty period.  It does not mean that the armour will fail after that time, but if you choose to use the armour after the warranty expiration, the liability is on you - not the armour manufacturer.  Most Police departments choose to replace their armour on the warranty expiry date though there are a couple that replace armour every 7 years and realize that they're responsible should the armour fail in years 6 or 7.   

It's important to ensure that you keep your 'fleet' of armour items up to date.   Since armour is a controlled good in BC (and many other provinces) it's also important to note armour serial numbers and ensure that the armour is audited on a regular basis.

Keeping track of expiry dates ("performance warranty") is very important.  While this can be a challenging task, we have developed an online database we call CAMS (Complete Armour Management System) that we include free of charge to customers who use us as their armour supplier. CAMS tracks serial numbers, issue dates, sizes, colours, etc. and also has an audit log.  It also tracks disposal method.  If your armour is ever stolen or lost, we can track all activity on the armour to help you easily manage your armour 'fleet'.   We can provide more details about CAMS upon request.

We hope this helps you select armour that is best for your needs.  However, any armour is better than no armour! So, wear your vest and stay safe!


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