There is an old adage in the firefighting community that the profession is 150 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.
The original fire helmet, then called a fire cap, was designed in 1731 by Jacobus Turk for the Fire Department of New York in order to distinguish the department from competitors. (Scarily enough, firefighting was once privatized—just like in the movie 'Gangs of New York.')
An ornamental eagle—with no related significance—was added to the helmet design around 1825. A 1930 New Yorker article points out that the eagle "sticks up in the air, it catches... on telephone wires, it is always getting dented... every so often, some realist points out how much safer and cheaper it would be to do away with the eagle, but the firemen always refuse." The eagle still exists as an integral part of the helmet today.
The colors of the helmet, however, do have importance. Black generally denotes a private/basic firefighter, yellow or red can denote a lieutenant or captain, and white denotes a chief. Sometimes all of a department's helmets are black, while only the colors of the helmet badges denote rank. Lastly, Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) fire investigator helmets are bright blue.
Three main types of helmets are currently used in the United States. The "leatherhead" is just that—constructed almost entirely of leather. The leather's resistance to heat actually rivals that of modern composites. The large brim that dips down in back is designed to keep hose water dripping off of the ceiling out of the face. The leatherheads are used in fighting regular fires.
Here's a great video showing the making of the classic MSA Cairns leather helmet:
The second type is the structural helmet, a more streamlined version of the leatherhead, constructed of thermoplastics or composites. These helmets are used for structural collapses and extrications. Goggles, instead of a face shield, often sit on the front of the helmet.
The last type is the European-style helmet, which looks like a cross between a motorcycle helmet and something from Star Wars. The design is purportedly much more comfortable and practical. But, as one firefighter put it, "I've been involved with fire departments in four states...and in seven years have seen a grand total of two [European-style] helmets... these guys were... universally afraid of being mocked for wearing something new, different or 'unfashionable.'"
The helmet has uses other than just protection. If a firefighter is trapped on a floor of a burning building, he will toss his helmet out the nearest window, signaling to others below on the street that he needs help.
Similar to military traditions, firefighters will decorate their helmets with personalized messages or stickers in addition to the reflective trapezoids already on the helmet. The helmet transcends from a simple piece of equipment to a kind of talisman—a piece of the firefighter's spirit.
Redesigning the fire helmet - both a marketable product and a symbol deeply ingrained in American culture - to satisfy firefighters' physical, mental, and emotional needs could be the industrial design challenge of a lifetime.
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Indeed, following discussions with the experts in fire protection, I could talk about the different problems they face daily. First, at the respirator. This piece of equipment is a major problem. Firefighter loses a considerable time with it. Preparation steps to finally be able to enter the heat of battle can become problematic especially if we consider that the situation of a burning building can escalate quickly. According to the rule, the firefighters must have their masks on them constantly by cons it can become very annoying. It thus interfere on their movements and even impossible to work properly work with '' it '' in the neck, referring to the mask according to a firefighter. Not to mention the air supply pipe becomes very inconvenient in action. To put this mask, they have to remove the helmet, which puts them at risk and makes them lose precious seconds. Then, they must always adjust the helmet on the head depending on the configuration with or without a mask is probably a step that should disappear once again to save the time of intervention. In addition, if the mask is not properly installed another problem appears. Indeed, in the intense heat, air leakage causes mist which becomes very problematic in dangerous situations and puts the rescuer's life in danger if it has reduced vision. This heat causes thereby discomfort to the wearer because it causes sweating from him under this rubber mask.
Especially after my discussions with these experts, another big problem emerged at the communication between colleagues. Indeed, in a dangerous situation, wearing a mask make communications very difficult. The question arises whether their means of communication is really appropriate with the equipment they have now? According to the information that these people passed me, communication is a major problem. Difficulties speaking with a breathing mask coupled with an ability to hear equally tedious communications does not make them easy task especially when they have to receive instruction and guidance from outside.
To resume, all the information gathered in this exercise make me believe that the issue is really more at a symbiosis between now crucial accessories and helmet as such. This integration will be a good opportunity to review the way that people use them, but also to review the role of the helmet with respect to these items. The challenge will be to make this integration while keeping the semantics of the object that flaunts the firefighter occupation. We must also understand that I am only at the beginning of my long research, but I think it could be wrong to completely ignore the reference to the past. With the addition of new technologies to overcome these problems is perhaps that it could become a reality easier than you think.
As a firefighter i can assure you, if trapped, we do NOT "toss his helmet out the nearest window, signaling to others below on the street that he needs help." I know there's a certain well known movie that portrays this happening. However, like much of that movie, that is "Hollywood Free Lancing. The "helmet toss" is not taught in any modern rookie school. If I can make it close enough to that window, I'm going to go out that window. If I'm hurt or trapped I'm going to call a MAYDAY on the radio we all carry now. The helmet protects me from heat, flame, steam, as well as debris. That is a big assumption that someone would even see the helmet. Or that it would even break the window. How would they know what window it flew out of?
My All Hazard Response Team at Station 1 Tampa is switching to the Gallet helmet system. Any advice on where to requisition. I have a UK contact but have yet to hear from that supplier. Thanks, Chief Ryan Andrew Anthony, First Responder Services, Station 1 Tampa
Having worked with both the US traditional helmet and the European style helmets I can tell you that I might look weird (according to American colleagues), but at least I'll be an alive weirdo.
The European style helmet was developed in 1986 for the French fire brigade, who decided that after centuries of little or no alteration to its design, for sure one could come up with something better.
Gallet, a French manufacturer cooperated with Dräger and developed the now famous F1 helmet.
By now the F1 is no longer in production and we are at least 2 to 3 generations of helmets further.
The strive towards tradition gave the US manufacturers a big disadvantage towards their European counterparts, who are decades ahead in manufacturing procedures and research and development on this field.
However some American manufacturers are now producing helmets in to the European style.
Bullard developed the Magma, which looked very nice to me on a fair. (I didn't have a chance to use it yet). Light, broad field of vision,...
Rosenbauer has even an NFPA approved model! (the Hero)
I currently use the Drager HPS 7000, which the manufacturer even guarantees protection against flashover!
The helmets seem bulkier, but are actually lighter than their American counterparts while giving a great deal more protection.
The fact of having the option to have an integrated flashood, safety goggles, visor, flashlight and even thermal imaging camera greatly improves the safety the helmet offers to the firefighters.
My helmet also has a clip on system for my SCBA mask. There where one might claim that the seal would be inferior, this makes up by the fact that I no longer need to take off my helmet in order to put on or off my mask. This is a valuable time saver and avoids me exposing my head while putting on/off my mask.
Even if I would be given money to wear an American helmet, I would opt for the European one if I could.
We transitioned over to the Rosenbauer Titan helmets and can't give enough praise for them. Yeah, we get a lot of looks, but a lot of them are intrigue, even resulting in several neighboring depts borrowing one to check out with their new helmet purchases.
An American helmet will always beat a European Helmet even in a fire.
If you can't handle it!
Find another job!
Let the professionals in the fire service use what works. We depend on this stuff to do our job safely, we certainly will make sure it meets our needs as we have been doing.
I ve been a fire fighter since 28 Feb 2002.
At our Department we use all different types of fire helmets - Pacific, thermoglas, thermoplastic etc. The helmet which our department issued us during 2010 was helmets with a very very short neck part ( actually for exstreme searc and rescue purposes ) although it is a very small helmet it is also heavy and dont even fit correct when waering SCBA. The neck part is so short - what if a brick or piece of metal come down on your neck - In person I think that that the people who buy fire helmets for fire fighters dont think about the safety of their men - the reason why I say that is because they dont realise that if a fireman get injured from falling debri that they can actually take the department to court especially if the helmet is not for fire fighting purposes.
I recently bought an old Cairns & Brother 808 fire helmet on Ebay - i started to use the helmet - First the other fireman were jellous, some even say I look like an American - I was so happy with the helmet that I contact BULLARD and ordered a UST helmet for myself - What I've noticed about my helmet with the longer rear part - My back is always dry - and when something fall on my head or upon my neck when i'm in totall darkness - I FEEL SAVE... I always feel proud to wear the Eagle and the name of PORT ELIZABETH on my leather front - May TRADITIONAL HELMETS LIVE ON IN THET HEARTS OF FIREMAN...
Brother, thanks for your service. I avoid these sorts of things generally, but you pique my interest.
"The good news is that we have reached the last thing and that thing is the traditional helmet."
So, the 87 men and women who died in the line of duty last year were all from non European-style helmet catastrophes?
Actually, they died from smoke inhalation, burns, falls, building collapse, being unrestrained in a vehicle crash and heart attacks. The traditional style helmet may be out of date and not in line with the latest in safety, ergonomics and design (remember what website we are on). Traditional helmets are not killing firefighters. Until no one dies because of preventable causes on the fireground, this is all moot. Instead of mandating changes OF our headgear, lets think about how to make changes IN our headgear. Stay safe Brother FTM/PTB
My original fire training was in the US Navy. Back then we would tuck our dungaree pants into our socks, button up the top button on our cotton shirt, turn up the collar, put on a pair of gloves and an old Vietnam-era steel pot helmet on our heads.
This was in the mid-80's.
Some of the people in my department were traditional helmets and some where the more modern ones. I wear a more modern style. Why? Because the department buys them and provides them for free. I am not going to spend $300, or more, of my own money so I can wear a fancy hat into a fire.
I like the look of the traditionals, but not enough to spend my own money for one.
One problem with the European-design helmets is that they cover the ears too much. The people designing these things don't realize how much we need to hear when in a fire. I tried one once, blocked too much sound.
Another thing to consider with a new design, $$, how much does it cost? 80% of the firefighters in the country are Volunteer or Paid-on-call. Most of the volunteer departments are chronically short on money. We cover low population density regions of the country. We don't have the tax base to support career departments. We don't have the call volumes to justify a lot of high tech gadgetry in the helmets either. Training time is short. So simple is better.
Career, Urban departments do the most fire calls. They are highly skilled, well trained, disciplined people. I have a lot of respect for them. In a busy urban environment, it might be possible to justify some high-tech, fancy helmet with integrated communcations equipment. They have the call-volume to need it and the training to use it. But in the hinterlands, we got to keep it simple as possible.
I love the look of the traditional fire helmet. It is steeped in nostalgia and dripping with emotion. It also completely avoids rationality and intelligence in todays advancing and demanding fire service.
The traditional fire service helmet drastically needs to be improved. Better yet, just replace it. The homage to tradition comes at the expense of cost, excessive wear, user fatigue, damage and discomfort. Just because we can still make a helmet out of leather that is NFPA compliant doesn't mean we should. There are so many more appropriate materials that are lighter and stronger for the application. 1836, it's time to step in to 2011.
The 'European' style helmet stows the visor between the outer shell and the impact protection layer keeping it from getting scratched and all but removing it as an entanglement hazard while keeping it easy to access. Its curved shape provides better face and eye protection than the a flip-down shield or the Bourkes. Not only that, but there is the option of having two shields built in to the helmet; one for high visibility and the other for radiant heat protection. The sides drop low and provide enough coverage to protect ears.
'European' style helmets place the mass closer to the head, eliminate bills that limit range of motion or get in the way when working with ropes. And the outdate brass eagle to hold up the vanity plate on the front - a straight up entanglement hazard.
Helmets should mate with high-tech turnout gear. They should accommodate communication technology and integrate with breathing apparatus face pieces.
It is true that traditional fire helmets are the last thing that need to be change in the fire service. The good news is that we have reached the last thing and that thing is the traditional helmet. Time to wake up to the improvement that the Europeans have know for years or dramatically overhaul the current 'traditional' design and bring it in to this millennium.
By the way, I'm not a 'non-fire service' person, I wear a fire helmet every day for work. I know that there is something far better than the traditional fire helmet. All that needs to be done is to is to lower the ego far enough to gain sight of it.
Maybe it's better, maybe it's not, but being stubborn for the sake of tradition is sad. Especially if the possibility of something that has a better chance of saving your life comes along.
I want you guys to live, because frankly I can't put out a house fire on my own.. I need you guys.
For every firefighter that would never change their helmet, there seems to be one who welcomes the idea.
The point I wanted to get at is: what's the balance between the advancement of technology and a product that's worked well for hundreds of years? Should new inventions take precedent over existing solutions?
Do not put your efforts into changing something that does not need to be changed. Our fire helmet is the last thing that needs to be changed in the fire service.
Was going to point out that extrications was a typo (expecting it was meant to read extractions) but then I looked it up and learned a new word, hooray new knowledge!
During the process, I ran into a lot of the same tradition issues that you discussed in the article. I agree that coming up with a solution that balances those traditional preferences with advancements in technology and materials is a real challenge.
Engineer/Designer/Vol. Firefighter ('02-'07)