Protective helmets have been used for millennia. About 24 BC, Roman emperor Augustus established a municipal fire fighting company that employed a hand-to-hand bucket delivery system. Lacking personal protective gear, early firefighters battled flames from the perimeter. Firefighting protective gear in the United States, worn as far back as the colonial era, was at best rudimentary until about 1730 when the first firefighting "stovepipe" helmet appeared courtesy of NYPD firefighter Jacobus Turck. 1825 produced Italian scientist Giovanni Aldini's heat protection mask. Goggles were worn to complement London Fire Brigade Superintendent James Braidwood's 1863 SCBA, an invention comprised of a lined sac, rubber hoses, bellows, and mouthpiece. As primitive as such gear seems today, it's unlikely that we'd be where we are without building upon its foundation.
Leather, Aluminum, Kevlar, and...FOAM?
Firefighting helmets of the familiar leather variety have been around for about 170 years. Mass production of fire helmets swayed temporarily to aluminum shells until their heat and electrical conduction properties became obvious. Leather returned as the manufacturing mainstay for its water resistance and ability to offset the blow of falling objects.
Leather helmets remained the standard until the 1970s with incorporation of moldable heat- and impact-resistant synthetics and composites such as fiberglass, polyaralyte, and Kevlar. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an international nonprofit group established in 1896 dedicated to developing fire hazard consensus codes and standards, issued the Standard on Structural Fire Fighter's Helmets in 1979. This standard resulted in design consideration of impact force and acceleration, heat, flame, and electrical current resistance, and other factors.
In Europe, CGF Gallet, a French manufacturer of firefighting and military protective headgear, launched the original F1 Helmet in 1985. This design in its fifth generation is still widely used today by firefighters in 80 countries. Gallet's F2 Wildlands Helmet became available in 1987 for wild fire and technical rescue applications and is popular in Europe, Asia, and South America.
Henry T. Gratacap began production of leather fire helmets in 1836. In 1869 Cairns & Brother Inc. bought Gratacap's factory, and by 1955 produced helmets made of leather, aluminum, and plastics. Plastic composites of the day used phenolic impregnated fabric and polyester impregnated fiberglass. The flint flex helmet also appeared during this era, a more fracture-resistant and moldable plastic.
?Cairns & Brother was the first manufacturer to incorporate full thermal/impact caps within fire helmet shells. Foam impact caps were initially designed for impact energy absorption but were found to effectively absorb thermal energy as well. Fire helmets with integral impact caps are significantly cooler for users to wear than are those without.
An additional benefit of certain impact cap designs is the ability to disengage from the helmet shell should a firefighter become lodged within a tight space by a helmet brim. The helmet shell is left behind while the user escapes with impact cap intact.
?An additional unexpected benefit can be derived from the fire helmet eagle ornament. The brass eagle was created about 1825 and became a fire helmet tradition. Eagles serve both ornamental figures and lettered front identification pieces. Some eagle styles are manufactured as solid pieces, while others crush easily and absorb some impact energy, protecting the user and helping to lessen firefighter head and neck injuries.
Firefighter eye protection; a quick history
More innovation and history can be documented on this subject than most might think. It's a given that firefighters protect their precious eyesight while on the job. Did anyone think otherwise? Yes, as it turns out. Protective eyewear for firefighters received minimal attention until firefighter Lester Bourke sustained a facial injury in the early 1960s.
Lester Bourke, firefighter with FDNY Engine Company 231 in Brooklyn and part-time inventor, sustained a severe blow to his forehead while working the hose line. Although he recovered from his injury, the accident raised his awareness as to firefighters' eye injury vulnerability.
Lester initially tried army goggles as eye shields only to experience constant fogging. Subsequent tinkering and experimentation using spare parts, notably fire engine speedometer cables and clock springs, allowed him to create lenses that could move up and down on the fire helmet. It took time, but within a few years his invention was complete. Cairns and Brother began selling his Bourke Safety Eye Shields in 1966; Lester Bourke received a patent in 1968. This flip-down style eye shield's appearance, initially resisted by firefighters, became a tradition through the years, only to be surpassed by new and innovated technology made possible through modern materials, design, and manufacturing.
Firefighters' eye protection design must consist of an impact/heat resistance balance. All externally-mounted eye shields worn with fire helmets share the same drawbacks: their lenses are subject to dirt, grit, and other flying debris, as well as damage from heat, sparks, and liquids. Firefighting faceshields and goggles, also externally-mounted, are subject to the same although faceshields offer tint and material options (generally plastics) not offered with older model eye shields. Goggles provide a close, tight fit with flexibility as well as anti-fog properties.
Time passed and firefighting gear took the high-tech route through incorporation of lightweight, heat-resistant synthetic materials. Moldable compounds such as polycarbonate and polyaralyte allow for production of smaller, lower-profile components. A truly retractable visor became a reality for Gallet. This internally-mounted faceshield preserves a goggle's close fit and a traditional faceshield's tint options and anti-fog properties. Retract-ability offers between-use protection from abrasive debris, dirt and mud, heat and sparks. By nature, it's unlikely that integrated visors are lost or left behind.
It's only in recent years that integrated, retractable visors are available across the pond in North America following polyaralyte faceshields in 1983 and non-corroding faceshield hardware in 1984. Most visor choices are NFPA-compliant and meet ANSI Z87.1+. Locking hard detent mechanisms offer easy adjustability and eliminate slippage; optically-correct lenses eliminate peripheral distortion.
Most firefighters in the U.S. prefer traditionally-shaped helmets with wide brims and custom fronts, constructed of leather or synthetic materials. An added benefit that became quickly apparent in the United States is firefighters' ability to clearly read retractable visor users' helmet identification fronts, as those fronts are not blocked by goggles or faceshields resting in the "up" position.
We've thankfully come a long way in a relatively short time period due to human ingenuity and resourcefulness and no doubt will continue to do so. Regulations, codes, and standards help to guide protective firefighting gear innovation to offset and minimize the risks of this hazardous but crucial occupation.