Firefighter's helmet

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 fire helmets has changed little over the years, their composition has evolved from traditional leather to metals (including brass, nickel and aluminum), to composite helmets constructed of lightweight polymers and other plastics.

Leather helmets

"Leatherhead" helmet

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

Leatherhead is a term for old style leather helmets used by many firefighters in North America. Leatherhead is also slang for a firefighter who uses a leather helmet. The leather helmet is an international symbol of firefighters dating to the early years of firefighting. Typically, traditional leather helmets have a brass eagle adornment affixed to the helmet's top front of the helmet to secure a leather shield to the helmet front.[1][2] Leather helmets have fallen into disuse, only seeing use in some fire departments in North America, such as New York and Houston. Canadian fire departments (e.g. Toronto Fire Services) that use the Leatherhead have beaver in place of the eagle for the brass adornment.

Brass eagle and beaver

The eagle's origins can be traced to approximately 1825. An unknown sculptor created a commemorative figure for a volunteer firefighter's grave. Firefighters did not wear eagles before that, but eagles became associated with fire helmets ever since. The beaver ornament adorning on many Canadian firefighters' helmets is said to represent firefighters' relentless hard work, focused mission and undying dedication.

These ornaments protrude from the helmet and can catch on window sashes, wires and other obstacles, frequently leading to damage. As a result, many fire departments provide traditional helmets using modern plastic and composite helmets without eagles or beavers, jokingly referred to as salad bowls, turtle shells and slick tops due to their streamlined shape. However, many firefighters and fire departments still retain the leather helmet as a matter of tradition.

Early respirators

Dräger smoke helmet, German fire service museum

Tyndall's hood

In 1871, British physicist John Tyndall wrote about his new invention, a fireman's respirator, featuring a valve chamber and filter tube. This device used cotton saturated with glycerin, lime and charcoal to filter smoke particles and neutralize carbonic acid. The device was featured in the July 1875 issue of Manufacturer and Builder.[3]

Neally's smoke-excluding mask

George Neally patented a smoke-excluding mask in 1877 that he marketed to fire departments. This device featured a face mask with glass eyepieces and rubber tubes, allowing respiration through a filter carried on the chest.[3]

Merriman's smoke mask

A Denver firefighter known as Merriman invented an early hose mask that was featured in the January 7, 1892 issue of Fireman's Herald. This respirator featured a tube like that of an elephant trunk connected to an air hose that ran parallel to the firefighter's water hose.[3]

Loeb respirator

Bernhard Loeb of Berlin patented a respirator (US patent #533854) in 1895 that featured a triple-chambered canister carried on the waist that contained liquid chemicals, granulated charcoal and wadding. This respirator was used by the Brooklyn Fire Department.[3]

Dräger smoke helmet

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 critical to mine rescue operations that rescue workers became known as draegermen.[3][4]

Metal helmets

Napoleonic helmets

Napoleon Bonaparte reordered the various fire fighting organisations in Paris (and later other cities) into a unit of the French Army called the Sapeurs-pompiers. They wore a brass helmet with a high central crest, similar to that worn by dragoon cavalry, with a frontal plate on which a badge representing their city was embossed.[5] This style of helmet was widely copied across Europe and beyond.

Merryweather helmet

Merryweather helmets were used by British fire brigades from the Victorian era until well into the 20th century. These helmets were modelled on the helmets of the Sapeurs-pompiers which Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw had seen on a visit to Paris and introduced to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in London in 1868, replacing a black leather helmet. The design was widely copied by other British and British Empire fire services.[6] These helmets were made of brass, but those belonging to officers were silver plated. Metal helmets are conductive, a safety hazard as use of electricity became widespread, so a new helmet made from a composite of cork and rubber was introduced in London and elsewhere from 1936. However, during World War II, military-style steel helmets were adopted, similar to the Brodie helmet used by the British Army, to improve protection during air raids. A composite helmet was reintroduced after the end of the war.[7] Traditional brass helmets remained in service in Queensland, Australia until 1970.[8]

Aluminium helmets

Some departments, such as the Buffalo Fire Department for example, used aluminium helmets up to the mid-1980s.

German DIN fire helmet

In Germany, many fire brigades still use the old German DIN fire helmet. Early on, this helmet was simply an aluminium alloy version of the M1943 Stahlhelm used by the Wehrmacht, standardized in 1956 and normed in 1964 by DIN 14940. The material was AL-CU-MG, normed by DIN 1725. At about 800 g, it was lighter than most fire fighting helmets.

The color was Wehrmacht black in the beginning or red in Bavaria. The norming process of the 1960s changed color to a fluorescent lime yellow. This helmet uses a white reflecting stripe and black leather neck protection. Most fire brigades use this helmet with an easily mountable visor.

The German DIN fire helmet does not correspond to the currently valid European EN 443 standard for fire helmets due to its conductivity. German fire brigades are allowed to use existing aluminum DIN fire helmets, but if new helmets are necessary, firefighters must purchase either composite or a newly developed version of the old helmet with EN 443-compatible coating. At about 900 g, coated aluminum helmets are still relatively lightweight. Some manufacturers currently produce fire helmets constructed of glass fibre reinforced plastic, replicating the look of old German DIN fire helmets. However, it is not uncommon that fire brigades move to modern helmets like the F1.

Modern composite helmets

F1 helmet

F1 helmet with back cover and side-mounted flashlight

The F1 helmet is a modern firefighting helmet made in France by Gallet, a subsidiary of MSA Safety. In service since 1985, the F1 helmet provides protection against impact, fire and electricity, fulfilling EN 443 European standard.

The F1 was an answer to requirements of the Paris Fire Brigade for replacement of the previous helmet (Casque modele 1933 was similar to the Merryweather) that dated to 1933; these helmets 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 galvanized nickel. These helmets can accommodate 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 French fire services, gaining export success in more than 85 countries including fire departments in Switzerland, the United Kingdom,[9] Hong Kong, Canada and Japan (notably in Tokyo).

Modern structural helmet

Modern composite "Metro" structural firefighting helmets

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

Urban rescue helmet

These helmets are used for urban search and rescue applications and are shaped differently from traditional fire helmets.[10]

Helmet colors

British Royal Navy firefighters with yellow helmets

In some countries, most notably the United States and other Anglophone countries, the firefighter's helmet color often denotes the wearer's rank or position. In Britain, most firefighters wear yellow helmets; 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; captains are in 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 County Fire Department's use of MSA Safety "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 used white numbers, with paramedics switching to green and a two-color "paramedic" decal later affixed to either side of the helmet. Truck companies used red numbers. Captains' helmets were black with a white stripe down the helmet's center ridge, and the numeric shield portion in white.Battalion Chiefs helmets were solid white with black numbers These helmets have since been discontinued. Another example is the San Francisco Fire Department. Engine company helmets are typically all black; truck company helmets are black with alternating red and white quarters on the helmet dome.

The South Australian Country Fire Service, as with many Australian fire services, use specific colors 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.

In New Zealand, helmet colours were changed in 2013 to assist with identification of the command structure at a large multi-agency incident. Firefighters wear yellow helmets, plain for a base-rank firefighter, with one red stripe for a qualified firefighter, and with two red stripes for a senior firefighter. Station officers wear red helmets with one blue stripe (previously yellow with one blue stripe), while senior station officers wear red helmets with two blue stripes (previously yellow with two blue stripes). Chief fire officers and their deputies wear white helmets; regional and area commanders and their assistants wear silver helmets; and the national commander and their deputies wear black helmets. Trainee and recruit firefighters wear fluro-green helmets (previously red).[11]

In Germany lime-yellow phosphorescent helmets are commonly used. Different colours, which indicate different ranks, are rarely used.[12] But it is common to use different kind of identification markings on the helmets. As fire service is manly organized by the different federal states and in the end in the responsibility of the different communities there is no standard kind of identification markings for helmets. In Bavaria for example the "Kommandant" (elected fire chief) is marked with a red vertical stripe on the helmet and the “Gruppenführer” (group leaders) with thin black rubber bands around the helmets.[13] It is also quite common to use helmet markings for different possible functions like medic or SCBA.[14] While identification markings according to the rank on the helmet are permanent, officers and sub-officers usually wear coloured vests over their bunker-gear in order to indicate their currently carried leading-position.

See also


  1. "History of the Leather Helmet". Retrieved 2014-06-03.
  2. Gibson, Ella (November 19, 2014). "Episode 35 Leather Fire Helmet". A History of Central Florida Podcast. Retrieved February 7, 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Taggart, Ian. "The Invention of the Gas Mask". Retrieved 2013-04-23.
  4. "draegerman". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2013-04-23.
  5. Haythornthwaite, Philip (1988), Napoleon's Specialist Troops Osprey Books, ISBN 9781780969794 (p. 19)
  6. Blackstone, Geoffrey Vaughan (1957), A History of the British Fire Service, Routledge (p. 178)
  7. Turnham, Andy. "Hot Lids - The London Fire Brigade". Retrieved 18 February 2016.
  8. Bowden, Bradley (2008), Against All Odds: The History of the United Firefighters Union in Queensland: 1917-2008, Federation Press, ISBN 978-186287-693-4 (p. 6)
  9. 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.
  11. "Rank insignia". New Zealand Fire Service. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
  13. Staatliche Feuerwehrschule Würzburg. "Merkblatt: Kennzeichnung der Dienstkleidungsträger der Feuerwehren in Bayern", pp. 16/17, "", 7th modified edition, Status 11/2009.
  14. Bickert, Leo (6 June 2016). "Helmkennzeichnungen". Alle Feuerwehren in Nordrhein-Westfalen. Leo Bickert. Retrieved 6 September 2016.
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