Why Are Fire Helmets Shaped That Way? A Brief History

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There is no more iconic design anywhere in the firefighting world than in the shape of a firefighter’s helmet. This classic design has endured through centuries. Many people are left wondering whether the shape serves a purpose or if it’s purely decorative?

Firefighter helmets are shaped the way they are based on their history. Earlier helmets made from leather or metal found the shape to keep hot water and fire embers off the neck and face. This style has influenced modern-day fire helmets.

Also read: How to Clean a Leather Fire Helmet

Why Are Fire Helmets Shaped That Way?

There is, of course, a practical purpose to the shape of the fire helmet and while fire helmets have changed, to some degree, over the years – their core practical functions have not. 

The reinforced “dome” is meant to ensure that if something falls on a firefighter’s head that it doesn’t injure the firefighter. The shield can be used for breaking windows. The neck is protected and if you reverse the helmet and point your chin down, the helmet can protect a firefighter’s face too.

In short, it’s a highly functional garment and the shape is not arbitrary at all. So, let’s take a look at the development of the firefighting helmet over the years.

A Brief History of the Fire Helmet

Here is a great video that explains the history of the American fire helmet:

Founded In Tradition | American Fire Helmets

Much of the development of the fire helmet took part in the 19th century as the technological revolution in the United States took hold and more and more fires were being fought and many lives were being lost as a result of these fires. 

The “Stove Pipe”

The oldest form of firefighter helmets is the “stove pipe” design. It wasn’t very good. They looked somewhat like President Abraham Lincoln’s favorite top hat and sadly, they had about as much value to firefighters as the top hat would have done.

The only real value to be gained from wearing a “stove pipe” hat was that it would tell another firefighter which department that you worked for. As you can imagine, this was something of a wasted opportunity and given the dangers that are presented to a firefighter’s head and face during the course of their duties – it wasn’t something that could be allowed to continue.

There was a pressing need for a fire helmet which did more than act as a sort of ID card and which offered real protection to the man (and later on, woman, early fire departments would have been all male environments, women wouldn’t have worn a “stove pipe” hat) wearing it. 

Jacobus Turck and Matthew Dubois’s Designs

A gentleman known as Jacobus Turck in New York City in the year 1740 (or thereabouts) was accredited with the invention of the very first “fire cap”. It was a circular design that offered a high crown and a narrower rim. It was made completely of leather. 

This design was quickly seized upon by Matthew Dubois who added a host of improvements to the design – most of all, he added the sewn core of iron wire under the edge of the brim which not only provided some of the shape of the helmet but ensured that it would be much stronger. It was this change that helped Dubois’ helmet resist flame, heat, warping and humidity/water damage. 

However, neither of these improvements on the stove pipe bore a particularly strong resemblance of the modern fire fighter’s helmet and it was another gentleman nearly a century later that would define the way fire fighter’s helmets were constructed from then on. 

Henry T Gratacap’s Leather Helmet

At some point between the year 1821 and 1836 (record keeping was nobody’s strong suit in those days) a FDNY volunteer firefighter by the name of Henry T Gratacap would be struck by the idea that the firefighter’s helmet was not ideally suited for the purpose of fighting fires.

His helmet design was again made from tough leather. It was sewn together via the combs and it was meant to be a fully-functional safety design from the inception.

The dome of the helmet was fully reinforced which meant that a firefighter could now withstand the blow of falling debris more easily. The front shield, which was noticeably taller, could be used to smash open a window when the fire needed horizontal ventilation.

The rear brim was to ensure that the firefighter’s neck wasn’t easily scorched from either heat or water passing over it. 

In a major emergency, you could reverse Gratcap’s helmet and wear it backward to protect your face while keeping your chin on your chest. 

If a helmet was hurled from the window of a burning building, it would survive the fall, which meant it became the earliest official “distress signal” for firefighters tackling blazes.

The original design incorporated only 4 combs, but when experimentation showed that the more combs were used, the stronger the design would be – the number quickly crept up to 16 combs!

Giovanni Aldini Adds the First Mask

At around the same time, Giovanni Aldini was working on another related problem – how to provide a mask for the firefighter which provide some decent level of heat protection but at the same time allowed them to breathe fresh air while they worked.

Aldini’s mask wasn’t great but it did inspire others to tackle the problem with more confidence. It would, eventually be, a miner by the name of John Roberts that would develop a mask using a filter system that would be adopted throughout the United States and Europe. 

Sometimes, it’s more important to point the way than to reach the end point and Aldini’s contribution shouldn’t be downplayed because it wasn’t the perfect mask. 

The Cairns Brothers Add Badges – The “Leatherhead”

fire helmet

While Gratacap gave the fire helmet it’s final shape, it was still missing a little something from the original fire helmet design – the ability to quickly and easily identify the firefighter’s unit and ID. It was The Cairns brothers of New York that would come up with the solution to this minor issue.

They developed a metal badge button and insignia for the firefighting helmet. They were the first to see how easy it would be to attach the badge to the front of the helmet so that you could get the information you needed from it immediately when you made contact with the firefighter.

Today, you’ll find that these badges are still pretty much the same as they were back then, and they’re known as “front pieces” or “shields”.

It was also around this time that firefighters helmet came to be nicknamed “Leatherhead” which is, obviously, a reference to the Gratacap helmet which would become a very familiar feature of every call out to a fire. 

Many firefighters came to feel (and still feel) that the helmet was one of the best and most sincere symbols of their profession and their dedication to protecting people and property from danger and destruction. 

James Braidwood’s First SCBU

The helmet’s other main accompaniment, the self-contained breathing unit (SCBU) (Now known as a self-contained breathing apparatus or SBCA) needed a little more time to come to maturity but it might surprise you to learn that the first SCBU was still designed and produced in the 19th century.

James Braidwood used a pair of canvas bags that were lined with rubber to form an airtight sac. These were then worn on the back and they used a variety of straps and belts for the firefighter to secure them to their body. 

Then a pair of rubber hoses were ran along the side of the brim of the firefighter’s helmet and down into the mouthpiece which would enable the firefighter to breathe clean(ish) air while fighting a fire. 

This would then be topped off with a hood, a pair of goggles, a nose clamp and an emergency whistle to provide the maximum level of security for firefighter’s who were privileged to make use of Braidwood’s SCBU. 

As you might expect, it’s this part of the fireman’s PPE that has had the most development and improvement over the years. Technology has really benefited firefighters looking for better breathing apparatus. 

Where Did the Eagle Come From?

The Eagle which appears on the badges of firefighter’s helmets appears to have come from a sculpture that was created for a volunteer firefighter’s grave. 

The sculpture has a figure walking out of flames, they hold a child in one hand and a trumpet in the other. There is an eagle on the figure’s helmet. 

The eagle stays too. It says in the face of evidence that the eagle can actually get caught up in firefighting gear and cause problems. They’ve also shown that it’s easy for the eagle to get broken or torn off the helmet.

None of this matters, to firefighters the eagle is a fundamental part of their identity and there’s no way that they’re going to give it up. 

The “New Yorker” Helmet (The “Structural Helmet”)

Today, the “New Yorker” style of helmet has barely changed over the last 168 years of service. It still has the same appearance and is built to the highest possible level of quality that firefighters have come to rely upon. 

The leather is a tanned cowhide, the duckbill which is seen on some helmets at the rear is to prevent the water from spilling down inside a firefighter’s clothing. 

There’s no denying that the firefighter’s helmet is simply an iconic piece of clothing which is easy to spot in a crowd and shapes the identity of the wearer. 

Here is a look at a popular, modern American fire helmet.

This video shows how the modern leather fire helmet is made:

Cairns Fire Helmet How Its Made

Ranks and Colors

Traditionally, a firefighter’s rank was symbolized by the color of the firefighter’s helmet. So, a chief would have a white helmet, a captain would have a white-fronted helmet, and so on…

At the same time, a firefighter who was part of an engine company would have a black helmet whereas one serving in a ladder company would have a red helmet. When they introduced rescue companies into the fire service, their helmets were blue. Though not all departments use these colors today.

The shields that firefighters wear on their helmets also depict their rank. A bugle represents the officer from an engine company, whereas a pick-ax head is an officer from a ladder company. 

The Reason Most Modern Helmets Are Yellow

However, in the modern era, there’s been a shift away from using firefighting helmets to symbolize rank, etc. and that’s because there’s a real move to yellow helmets. 

This isn’t a fashion statement. It makes the firefighter much more visible to the naked eye during an incident. The color yellow is, oddly, the one which is most repellent to the human eye and thus, it’s very easy for people to pick it out.

This is why many of the most important warning signs such as biohazards are in yellow – it makes them distinctive and easily visible. 

The modern helmet isn’t quite as tall as the traditional helmet because the material used is better and there’s enough strength in the helmet without the height. You’ll also find that there are some small additions such as earflaps, a cloth head grip, eye shields/visors, etc. but overall, the modern helmet is very similar to the original design. 

The Introduction of Production Standards for PPE

It wasn’t until after World War 2 that there was a recognition that protective gear for firefighters needed to be built to a certain, reliable standard. Before that date, anyone from any background could develop products for firefighters and there was no way to gauge the quality of these products until after they had been purchased.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was one of the leaders in the fight to develop standards for PPE for firefighters and they continue to develop such standards today. 

European vs American Fire Helmets

The modern European firefighting helmet is very, very different from the American one. 

European fire helmet

The Star Wars Helmet?

Yes, the European firefighter goes to work in a Star Wars style plastic helmet which has something of the “motorcycle helmet” about it. These helmets are much more lightweight than the American design, they are said to be much more comfortable to wear and they’re very practical. 

They also meet any expected safety standards. The Europeans aren’t any more likely to risk the lives of their firefighters than the Americans are, so why the difference?

It appears to be fashion sense. One firefighter said, “I’ve been involved with fire departments in four states… and in seven years, I’ve seen a grand total of two European-style helmets… these guys were… universally afraid of being mocked for wearing something new, different or ‘unfashionable’”. 

There is definitely scope for redesigning the firefighting helmet in the future and the American firefighter may one day wear a completely different helmet but for now, tradition dictates that the “New Yorker” is part of the American firefighter’s identity.

Conclusion

We hope that “Ever wonder why fire helmets are shaped that way? A brief history” has been helpful in showing you that the design of fire helmets is a practical one and is designed to stop a firefighter from being hurt by falling debris, by being burned and it can even be used to break windows with!

The future of the firefighting helmet is potentially an exciting one. Just because a design has weathered a couple of centuries, it doesn’t mean that a better one cannot be developed – though one thing we’re sure of, even on a changed design – the eagle is here to stay!

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