Firefighter's helmet

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Fire helmets from around the world on display at the Hall of Flame Fire Museum in Phoenix, Arizona

For centuries, firefighters have worn helmets to protect them from heat, cinders and falling objects. Although the shape of most of these helmets has changed little over the years, their composition has changed from the traditional leather to metals (including brass, nickel and aluminum) to composite helmets made of lightweight polymers and other plastic.

Leather helmets[edit]

"Leatherhead" helmet[edit]

A traditional metal firefighting helmet from Arlington County, Virginia, c. 1974

The "leatherhead" is a term describing an old style leather helmet used by many firefighters in the US and Canada. Leatherhead is also slang for a firefighter who uses the leather helmet. The leather helmet is also an international symbol of firefighters from the earlier years of firefighting. Almost always, traditional leather helmets have a brass eagle adornment affixed to the top front of the helmet that secures a leather shield to the front of the helmet.[1]

Brass eagle and beaver[edit]

The brass eagle or beaver which holds the top of the front piece to North American leather helmets often become damaged with wear. The eagle's origins can be traced to around 1825 when an unknown sculptor created a commemorative figure for the grave of a volunteer firefighter. Firefighters were not wearing eagles prior to this, but it has been part of fire helmets ever since. The beaver ornament, adorned on many Canadian firefighter's helmets, is said to represent the relentless hard work, focused mission and undying dedication that North American firefighters are known for.

The ornament sticks up and out into the air, which causes it to catch its beak on window sashes, telephone wires and other obstacles. It frequently becomes dented, bent or knocked off. The ornament is frequently criticized and it is said that it would be cheaper and safer to do away with it.

Many fire departments have traditional helmet with more modern plastic and composite helmets that have no eagle or beaver device - Jokingly referred to as "salad bowls", "turtle shells" and "slick tops" for their streamlined shape. However, many firefighters and fire departments still retain the traditional helmet (composite or leather) as a matter of tradition.

Early respirators[edit]

Dräger smoke helmet, German fire service museum

Tyndall's hood[edit]

In 1871, British physicist John Tyndall wrote about his new invention, a "fireman's respirator" featuring a valve chamber and a filter tube with cotton saturated with glycerin, lime and charcoal, to filter smoke particles and neutralize carbonic acid. This invention was featured in the July 1875 issue of Manufacturer and Builder.[2]

Neally's smoke-excluding mask[edit]

George Neally patented a "smoke-excluding mask" in 1877, which he marketed to fire departments. This invention featured a face mask with glass eyepieces and rubber tubes allowing respiration through a filter carried on the chest.[2]

Merriman's smoke mask[edit]

A Denver firefighter named Merriman invented an early hose mask, featured in the January 7, 1892 issue of Fireman's Herald. This respirator featured a tube like an elephant trunk, connecting to an air hose that ran parallel to the firefighter's water hose.[2]

Loeb respirator[edit]

Bernhard Loeb of Berlin patented a respirator (US patent #533854) in 1895 which featured a triple-chambered canister carried on the waist, containing liquid chemicals, granulated charcoal and wadding. This respirator was used by the Brooklyn Fire Department.[2]

Dräger smoke helmet[edit]

Invented in 1903 by Dräger & Gerling of Lübeck, Germany, the smoke helmet was a fully enclosed metal helmet with glass face mask, featuring two "breathing bags" covered by a leather flap worn over the chest. This respirator became so important to mine rescue operations that rescue workers became known as "draegermen".[2][3]

Metal helmets[edit]

Merryweather helmet[edit]

Victorian fireman's ceremonial helmet, exhibited at Huntly House Museum

Merryweather helmets were used by British fire brigades from the Victorian era until well into the 20th century. Modelled after helmets worn by cuirassiers of the French Army, the helmets were made of brass or nickel. Metal helmets are conductive, which was a safety hazard as use of electricity became widespread, due to the risk of live wires falling from overhead. As a result they were slowly replaced by the modern structural fire helmets, similar to the ones used in North American jurisdictions.

Aluminum helmets[edit]

Some departments, such as the Buffalo Fire Department for example, used aluminum helmets up to the mid-1980s.[citation needed]

German DIN fire helmet[edit]

German firefighters with DIN helmets

In Germany most of the fire brigades still use the old German DIN fire helmet. In the beginning, this was simply an aluminium alloy version of the M1943 Stahlhelm used by the Wehrmacht. It was standardized in 1956, and normed in 1964 by DIN 14940. The material was AL-CU-MG, normed by DIN 1725. At about 800g, it was lighter than most other firefighter helmets. Wehrmacht black in the beginning, or red in Bavaria, the norming process of the 1960s changed its colour to a fluorescent lime yellow. It is provided with a white reflecting stripe and a black leather neck protection. Most fire brigades use the helmet with an easily mountable visor. The German DIN fire helmet does not correspond to the presently valid European EN 443 standard for fire helmets as it is conductive. German fire brigades are allowed to use the existing aluminium DIN fire helmets, but if they obtain new ones, they need to buy either composite or a newly developed version of the old helmet with EN 443 compatible coating. At about 900g, the coated aluminum helmets are still rather light. Some manufacturers produce new fire helmets made of glass fibre reinforced plastic, having exactly the look of the old German DIN fire helmet.

Modern composite helmets[edit]

F1 helmet[edit]

F1 helmet with back cover and side-mounted flashlight

The F1 helmet is a modern firefighter's helmet made in France by Gallet, a subsidiary of MSA, who also produce the SPECTRA military helmet. In service since 1985, the F1 helmet provides protection against impact, fires and electricity, fulfilling the EN 443 European standard.

The F1 was an answer to a requirement of the Paris Fire Brigade for a replacement of the previous helmet (Casque modele 1933 was similar to the Merryweather) which dated back to 1933; these provided insufficient protection for the face and back of the head, and were not thermally insulated. The F1 helmet is handmade, using synthetic materials often covered with galvanised nickel. It can include masks, communication systems and other accessories.

The F1 has been used by the Paris Fire Brigade since August 1985, and has been widely adopted by all of the French fire services, gaining export success in over 85 countries, including fire departments in Quebec, switzerland, the United Kingdom,[4] Canada and Japan (notably in Tokyo).

Modern structural helmet[edit]

Modern composite "Metro" structural firefighting helmets

Modern structural helmets (that is, intended especially for structure fires) are made of either thermoplastic or composite material. The brim at the rear of the helmet is longer than the front and a face shield(s) is usually attached to the front. These are worn in the United States and Canada, as well as United Kingdom, Australia and in parts of Asia (notably Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Guangzhou). Newer "Metro" helmets (the name given by several leading helmet manufacturers) are also much lighter than both leather and composite traditional helmets.

Helmet colours[edit]

British Royal Navy firefighters with yellow helmets

In some countries, most notably the United States and other Anglophone countries, the colour of a firefighter's helmet often denotes the wearer's rank or position. In Britain, most firefighters wear yellow helmets, but watch managers (sub officers) and above wear white helmets; rank is further indicated by black stripes around the helmets. In Canada regular firefighters wear yellow or black with captains with red and senior command offices in white. Likewise in the United States, red helmets denote company officers, while white helmets denote chief officers. However the specific meaning of a helmet's color or style varies from region to region and department to department. One noteworthy example is the Los Angeles Fire Department's use of the old MSA "Topgard" helmets depicted in the 1970s television series Emergency!. Firefighters used all black with colored company numbers on the shield below the "L.A. County" in blue on the top half. Engine and squad companies had white numbers, with paramedics switching to green and a two color "paramedic" decal later affixed to either side of the helmet, and truck companies had red numbers. Captains' helmets were black with a white stripe down the center ridge of the helmet and the number portion of the shield in white. These helmets have since been discontinued. Another example is the San Francisco Fire Department. Engine companies' helmets are typically all black and truck companies' are black with alternating red and white quarters on the dome of the helmet.

The South Australian Country Fire Service, like many Australian fire services, have specific colours for specific roles. White helmets are for Firefighters (with a red stripe for Senior Firefighters). Lieutenants have yellow helmets, Captains have yellow with a red stripe, Deputy Group Officers and above have red helmets, while paid staff have a blue stripe on their helmet.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "History of the Leather Helmet". Retrieved 2014-06-03. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Taggart, Ian. "The Invention of the Gas Mask". Retrieved 2013-04-23. 
  3. ^ "draegerman". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2013-04-23. 
  4. ^ Fay Schlesinger (2009-04-29). "Firemen go over to the Dark Side: New helmet makes them look like Star Wars stormtroopers | Mail Online". Retrieved 2014-06-03. 

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