The law enforcement environment is filled with risks and hazards both obvious and unseen. But as noted risk management trainer and consultant California Highway Patrol Commander Gordon Graham (ret.) states, That which is predictable is preventable.
It takes little imagination or experience to recognize the risk to unprotected eyes and ears while using firearms either on the range or the street. The discharge from a muzzle near an officer s ear can cause permanent hearing loss, and the back-splatter or ricochet of a bullet can take out an eye.
Actual incidents provide sad proof. Many years ago, a fellow officer at my department had finished range training and removed his eye and ear protection. He discovered unfired ammo under a target and put his ears back on to shoot it, but not his glasses. As he fired, a faulty round detonated in the chamber of his pistol, and a jet of hot gas and brass particles struck his eye. His time as a police officer ended.
Around 1995, a police captain running the line at a major shooting event suddenly went to the ground clutching his face. A ricochet bullet fragment struck sideways across his eye, cutting through his eyelid but missing the eye. The captain was wearing eye protection, but it lacked side wraps. He was most fortunate.
Fortunately, eye and ear injuries are preventable through the purchase and use of well-designed eye and ear protection. Yet with all the glasses and ear protection on the market, how do you choose? When you stand at risk, protection comes before coolness. Bottom line: Match your needs to the expected use and environment.
Glasses with wraparound side protection should be basic range and patrol equipment. Glasses must fit comfortably snug to your head and close to the eyes close lens fit prevents ejected hot brass from falling behind the lens and burning an eye, something I ve seen more than once. A headband will help hold them in place.
After trying a series of manufacturers, I settled on the Wiley-X PT-1. My training partner uses Oakley M-series glasses, and one of my commanders prefers Revision Co. glasses. All are top companies, and so long as you have the coverage and protection needed, personal preference and cost dictates choice. The lens design of these models gives wide-area coverage top to bottom and front to back.
The PT-1 are very fog resistant, but not fog proof. During recent handgun close-quarter-battle training, the heat and humidity were over 95 degrees and 95 percent, respectively, and I experienced lens fogging from the moisture in the air. I ve yet to find any eyewear that s totally fog free. The problem with fogging is obvious: Lenses fog up, officer can t see, officer removes glasses.
Want to know how this works out in real life?
I was a bad guy in a SWAT exercise. All officers were issued and ordered to wear protective gear, including face shields. As one SWAT officer approached my position, another bad guy armed with a .38-caliber Simunitions revolver heard him behind a short wall. The bad guy reached over without seeing the officer and fired once. A loud shout of pain followed. The officer had raised his face shield due to fogging. The bad guy s projectile struck him just off the eye, penetrating the skin. Blindness was averted by sheer good fortune.
When asked why he removed his protective eyewear, the officer denied doing so; it was an unconscious act done under stress. Lesson learned: Test your eyewear in humid and hot-to-cold conditions. Know beforehand if you have the protection you require.
It s not just training and special application that calls for eye protection I strongly recommend patrol officers wear glasses at all times. In 1984, noted less-lethal instructor Major Steve Ijames (ret.) of the Springfield (Mo.) Police Department was attacked while on patrol by a mental subject who had filed his thick fingernails into pointed weapons. During the violent hand-to-hand fight, Ijames was cut repeatedly on his face and head as the offender stabbed his fingers into Ijames face and eyes. Fortunately, Ijames was wearing protective glasses that saved his vision, and he overcame the offender. He is a believer.
A SWAT officer or first responder working in close team formation requires glasses or goggles that are rated for high-level impact, do not fog easily, do not fall off in fast movement and have interchangeable lenses for differing light conditions. Dark lenses in low light won t work, obviously, so you must be able to change to an applicable lens color.
Goggles have a defined place in the tactical side where the eyes must be sealed off from sand, glass or blown debris. One officer on a Midwest SWAT team took off his glasses because of fogging prior to the use of a ram for forced entry on a warrant. A splinter flew into his eye, and he was out of action. And, another team member had to render aid and was lost for the entry as well, all for a preventable injury.
The use of rams, shotgun breaching and flash bangs requires wraparound eye protection. One advantage of goggles is a wider area of protection with sealed edges. Ballistic shield operators often have the muzzles of the cover officers weapons next to their ears. If the weapon is fired with the muzzle behind the shield, the gasses reflect back into the shield operator s face. Goggles typically feature elastic headbands to hold them in place, although there are eye-glass models with ear pieces that have sealed goggle-type features.
The issue I ve had with goggles is significant fogging. But as entry-team leader Sergeant Ed Mohn of the NIPAS (Northern Illinois) regional SWAT team says, given adverse weather conditions and temperature differences when moving between exterior and interior environments, all eyewear fogs at some point. One model of goggles named the Flakjak that both Mohn and I have tested has proven very fog resistant and will allow wearing most ordinary corrected glasses underneath. Made by Safety Systems, they also include ventilation features, and I recommend them to SWAT/ERT teams for review.
Finally, the lenses of your glasses should be marked with Z87.1, the impact standard of the American National Standards Institute s Practice For Occupational and Educational Eye and Face Protection. ANSI Z87.1 is the benchmark standard for occupational eye and face protection. Sections 9 and 10 include specific guidelines for impact resistance, lens clarity, lens thickness and penetration resistance in regard to projectiles.
Some years ago I asked a professor of audiology from a well-known university to educate us about hearing protection and loss. The professor stated that any type of gunfire from a .22 long rifle to a snub .357 magnum will destroy the hair cells in the inner ear that allows hearing.
We can all wear glasses, but how do you use hearing protection in the field? We can t wear standard plugs that prevent us from hearing our fellow officers and teammates, radio traffic and danger signals. One solution: Amplified hearing muffs or plugs. This design offers protection from gunfire and loud noise but affords enhanced hearing in normal noise levels.
In a recent SWAT action, the SWAT entry team leader of a Chicago-region team wearing a set of Peltor 6S amplified muffs under his ballistic helmet was able to hear a hidden offender before other team members and warn them of the offender s location.
Peltor is well known for its products, and there are a number of other manufacturers of quality ear gear. Find a model that has scalloped ear pieces that fit beneath a ballistic helmet.
I carry a pair of 6S clamped around my patrol carbine in a Big Sky rack inside my SUV. When I clear the carbine from the rack, the Peltors come with it. A few seconds later, they are in place.
On the range, no officer should be allowed entry without proper ear protection. As kids, we started out with cotton stuffed in our ears. The ringing in my ears known as tinnitus is what I earned for my ignorance.
I caution all range officers to keep a pair of plugs partly inserted under your muffs. Why? Because you will call a cease fire and remove your muffs thinking all is finished, only to be blasted by a late round. Like eye wear on the range, keep your ears protected at all times.
An Ounce of Prevention
We ve learned from past events that prevention is the key. Mandatory eye and ear protection significantly lowers the probability of serious vision and hearing injury.
Be smart, work safe and stand ready.