A recent shooting causes only bruising to the deputy, further underscoring the value of the gear.
Bulletproof vests have been credited with saving about 2,500 law officers in the past 25 years, including an Orange County deputy who was shot during an ambush late Tuesday in an east Orange home.
Deputy Troy Tiegs, 27, was bruised in the back during the attack, but the slugs did not penetrate his vest.
The vests do more than fend off bullets.
They have saved officers speared by a flying object or slammed against a steering wheel during an automobile accident. One even shielded a Texas cop from a bull trying to gore him.
Technically, the vests are called bullet-resistant because none is absolutely bulletproof. They work by preventing a slug from piercing a wearer's body and by flattening the bullet and diffusing the shock caused by the force of the shot.
With bullets that travel at 1,150 to 1,400 feet per second, the impact alone can tear internal organs or break bones.
"It's similar to getting hit by a hammer or a baseball bat," vest expert Lance Miller said. "It's not as dramatic as you see on television, where it knocks you back off your feet, but it definitely will get your attention."
The vest that Tiegs wore is called a Zero-G Multiflex, which is made of Twaron, a synthetic fiber five times stronger than steel, according to the manufacturer's Web site. The material is almost identical to the better-known Kevlar.
"It does a super duper job on handgun rounds, as he found out," said Dale Wise, a retired Florida Department of Law Enforcement commander. He is now a representative for Safariland, which makes the Zero-G Multiflex.
The National Institute of Justice sets performance standards for vests, and its National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center in Rockville, Md., oversees the testing by independent labs. About 2,700 models have been checked, said Miller, testing manager for the center.
Although manufacturers can market vests that don't meet the standards, only vests that do meet them are eligible for a grant program begun in 1998 and renewed last month by President Clinton. The Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Act will provide $50-million annually for three years to offset the cost of vests for police departments nationwide.
The program was started after a 1997 shootout on the Vermont-New Hampshire border that killed two New Hampshire state troopers. They were not wearing vests because of the price tag: $600 to $1,000 each.
In Central Florida, vest policies vary widely. The Orange County Sheriff's Office does not require them, although it strongly encourages deputies to wear them, said Capt. Mike Foreman.
"The problem we have in Florida is finding a vest that can be tolerable in the heat," he said. "If it's not comfortable, they're not going to put them on even if it could save their life."
Orlando and Kissimmee police officers must wear their vests at night, when most officer-related shootings happen.
Ron McBride, a retired police chief and law enforcement consultant to the International Association of Police Chiefs/DuPont Kevlar Survivors' Club, said about 2,500 law enforcement officers were spared serious injury or death because of bulletproof vests.
The cost of outfitting officers in vests is far less than the expense incurred when an officer becomes disabled or is killed, he said.
"They're not cheap, but neither is a life," McBride said. "From a pure dollars and cents standpoint, cities and counties are well served by using them."