Minn. Firefighters' 'Star Wars' Helmets Buck Tradition

March 10--In 20 years of firefighting, Todd Porthan has worn an old-fashioned leather helmet, a lighter traditional helmet and now, a helmet straight out of "Star Wars."

It sits low on his head and has no brim. When Porthan's Edina fire squad recently joined other departments at the site of a fire, his helmet drew double-takes and jibes. One firefighter told Porthan he looked like a cosmonaut.

Porthan took the jokes with a grin and said he's not giving up the new hat. "I like it a lot," he said. "It's very comfortable; I almost forget I have it on. ... And it's safer."

In the proud community of firefighting, it's tough to buck tradition. Symbolic features like the eagle that has topped fire helmets since the 1800s remain, even though the decoration can endanger wearers by catching on fallen wires or cloth. Some firefighters still wear heavy leather helmets.

"The American fire service is 200 years of progress unimpeded by change," said Richfield Fire Chief Wayne Kewitsch. "Anything that changes that tradition is looked at skeptically by firefighters."

But things are changing.

Led by pioneers White Bear Lake and Eagan, at least 10 Twin Cities fire departments are using the new European-style helmets. They include Oakdale and Lakeville as well as Edina.

Edina also has armed its firetrucks and ambulances with fire suppression "grenades" that fill burning rooms with a chemical mist after a pin is pulled, tamping down and sometimes extinguishing a blaze.

Many departments have wall-piercing nozzles that allow a fire to be sprayed without firefighters having to enter the building. Scientists are working on locaters that track firefighters in buildings and sensors that could be swallowed or mounted on gear to relay vital signs to a crew chief who could pull firefighters from a building if they showed signs of physical distress.

"We're always looking at ways to improve," said Edina Fire Chief Marty Scheerer. The suppression grenades "are expensive, but I think they save money. If we save one firefighter from being injured, that is a huge savings."

A 'Jetsons' helmet

In 2011, Eagan got its first Austrian-manufactured helmet and asked a young firefighter to try it out. Fire Chief Mike Scott was enthused about the increased safety the new helmets offered.

"I believe our traditional helmets are more of a showpiece, with the big eagles on them," he said. "They're really pretty, but there's not as much head protection."

In the 1990s, before Scott was chief, his department wore leather helmets.

"They were very expensive and extremely heavy, and people were fatigued in their necks," he said. "I asked why we were using them and it was because they looked cool. And we wanted cool because we were a macho group."

The young Eagan firefighter thought the new helmet itself was cool, and wore it to couple of calls. Soon other firefighters dubbed him Rosie, after the robot maid on the old "Jetsons" cartoon show, and he didn't want to wear it anymore.

So Scott asked a veteran to try it out. That firefighter loved it. Now, 61 of Eagan's more than 100 firefighters are using the new helmets.

Scott said the new helmets, which are standard in European fire departments, are suited to the changing duties of firefighters. Today they respond not only to building fires but to car accidents, car fires and rescue situations, where the traditional hat can be more obstacle than help.

"I saw firefighters going into a car after an accident and taking their helmets off and laying them on top of the car," Scott said. "I want people with their hat on in those situations."

Firefighters are more likely to get through holes in rescue situations without having their helmet get caught, he said. Wires often fall from ceilings during fires, and the new hat doesn't have projections like the eagle that can snag on debris.

Scott dismissed concern that water will trickle down firefighters' necks with the bill-less helmet. These days, he said, firefighter's coats are custom-fitted, and if coats are worn correctly, the fire-retardant shield that hangs from the back of the helmet deflects water.

"There's a proper place for tradition, but safety equipment is not it," Scott said. "This is a multipurpose helmet for just about every type of call we go to."

In Edina, Scheerer made the new helmets optional for firefighters.

"I was hoping for one or two people to try these helmets so we could get buy-in, but 30 of 45 firefighters opted for these," he said. "So far, the reports are very good. There's better thermal protection, better hearing protection and better eye protection."

Testing and waiting

In Eden Prairie, a few firefighters are testing the new helmets. Assistant Chief Steve Koering said that those users like the comfort but that some complain they can't hear as well. He said safety and performance as well as cost will determine whether the department buys more.

Richfield, too, is waiting. Cost is a consideration in a department that has eschewed decorative touches like eagles on helmets.

"If you are going to be on the leading edge of technology, you better be sure it is working and the cost is giving you a return on investment in both personal and firefighter safety," Chief Kewitsch said.

The primary supplier of the Euro-style helmets to Minnesota departments is Wisconsin-based Jefferson Fire and Safety. President Pete Jefferson said he recently got a call asking to see one of the helmets from the most tradition-bound department in the country -- the New York City Fire Department.

"I believe that, in time, this will be the helmet design," he said. "Would the military wear helmets from World War I? ... It's just not very smart."

For Porthan, the factors are comfort, fit, stability and safety. His old helmet was knocked askew more than once when it caught on something. If he wants tradition, he said, he will admire the 19th-century leather fire helmet he has at home.

"You have to be safe," he said.

And, he added, the new helmet will stand him in good stead "just in case I get called to go to space."

Mary Jane Smetanka --612-673-7380

Copyright 2013 - Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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