As events in Ferguson, Missouri have unfolded, we’ve heard a lot about the military gear police departments have used to try to control demonstrators and enforce order. And for years, we’ve seen images of SWAT teams and military special ops forces with special helmets – bullet hard and packed with hardware. Turns out some of that gear is made nearby – in the Cleveland neighborhood of Collinwood. ideastream’s Brian Bull paid a visit to Team Wendy…
Inside a testing room, a gray helmet slowly climbs 3 feet up a steel rail, which is flanked by control buttons and a computer screen.
A moment later -- after several warning beeps -- the helmet falls….and squarely hits a broad metal dome, or “anvil” with a loud smack.
Ron Szalkowski, Director of Product Development at Team Wendy, checks the computer’s readings.
"There was a peak acceleration of 92 Gs," he remarks. That’s comparable to getting hit with a bat or being in a frontal car collision.
Szalkowski says this blunt impact testing is just one of many they do for their gear. The idea is to subject their helmets to any number of hazards the military or police might face – extreme heat, extreme cold and impact of lethal weapons.
Team Wendy’s latest model is the ExFil Ballistic Helmet. It’s made to withstand bullets from many firearms, including the most common threats like 9mm pistols and the .44 Magnum.
That means the helmet will stop, or “catch” those bullets so they don’t penetrate.
The shell design and liner system also offer protection from explosives. Szalkowski holds up a cross-section of a skull made from ballistics gel, the type used to measure the impact of blast forces released from roadside bombs, which have been linked to traumatic brain injuries in soldiers.
“This had pressure sensors embedded in that gel brain," he says, pointing to the dark amber material. "This specific head was something we were looking at, specifically the padding, how does that affect the interactions of the blast waves that go through.”
Ballistic helmets aren’t new. But Team Wendy says unlike other makes, their ExFil comes with engineered slots and fittings for combat and surveillance accessories like night vision goggles, cameras, headlamps, and radios.
The idea is that as well as being lighter and more resilient to projectiles and shockwaves, users can more readily customize these helmets without having to drill holes or other crude, makeshift methods.
Company CEO Jose Rizo-Patron instructs me on securing the nearly three-pound, ExFil Ballistic helmet…which includes a dial on the back that tightens the head band.
“See, you click it down and you twist it….[CLICK, CLICK, CLICK]….that lets you know you’re dialing in…. “
“That’s really snug," I say.
“And when you pull it out, it releases.”
Team Wendy has sold 6 million helmet-liner pads to the U.S. Army and Marine Corps since 2005, as well as thousands of lighter, non-ballistic helmets.
Rizo-Patron says military units in the UK and Netherlands have already ordered a few hundred units of the new ExFil Ballistic helmet since it went on the market three weeks ago. And they’re getting inquiries from American law enforcement.
At just under a thousand dollars each, the helmets aren’t cheap.
“These are premium products. They’re really designed to support the best of the best.”
Austen George is Patrol Sergeant for the Scottsdale, Arizona Police Department, and a contributing editor for Police Magazine. He’s tested and reviewed Team Wendy’s helmets, and will do the same for the ExFil Ballistic.
"If it’s anything like their previous products, I’m sure it’ll be a home run," says George. "We currently have about a 15-man SWAT team, we do a lot of high risk, tactical operations. So to have good ballistic protection, as well as a platform where you can mount night vision or communications, or hearing protection, things like that, definitely a need more than a want.”
Back at Team Wendy, CEO Rizo-Patron shows off a rack of finished helmets. The ExFils come in three colors.
“Black, which you typically more what you see in law enforcement….our coyote brown color, which is really sort of a dark tan color….and then foliage green which is a military color that’s pretty common.”
Rizo-Patron says by deflecting as much impact as possible, Team Wendy is safeguarding soldiers and law enforcement personnel – a point of pride and passion for the Collinwood company.