Fire Helmets in the U.S. - Traditional vs. European

June 1, 2019
Ed Hartin and Jerry Helm compare traditional helmets with new European-style head gear. Plus, Jason Caughey explains why choosing a helmet should be a personal choice.
A firefighter’s helmet is an iconic symbol of our profession. This holds true whether you are a firefighter in the United States or in another country, be it an FDNY firefighter’s Cairns leather helmet or the chrome Gallet G1 worn by a firefighter on la Brigade de Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris (Paris Fire Brigade).

Firehouse asked members from one Washington fire district—accustomed to adopting international firefighting practices—to share their experiences from a trial period using the jet-style helmets found in Europe.

Ed Hartin, fire chief with Central Whidbey Island, WA, Fire & Rescue

I grew up in the fire service watching my father and other members of the Wayland, MA, Fire Department wearing tin and then leather helmets. Entering the career fire service in 1974 with the Concord, MA, Fire Department, I was originally issued an MSA Topguard helmet (just like those worn by Johnny and Roy in the TV show “Emergency”). I was not particularly impressed with this helmet as it was made of thin thermoplastic with a suspension system like what you would find in a construction hard hat. As the fire chief at the time did not mind if we wore a different helmet, I bought a used leather helmet (back in the day where there was no suspension system) and wore that until 1983 when I was promoted to captain when I was issued a Cairns 660C “modern” helmet. My new helmet was as light as my old leather one but had a suspension system that provided improved impact protection. From 1983 to 2009 I wore similar helmets while serving with three different fire departments in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Oregon.

In the mid-2000s, I began attending training and teaching in Asia, Europe and South America. This provided exposure to a wide range of the other types of firefighting head protection. Working from the perspective of “when in Rome, do as the Romans” I enjoyed the opportunity to work in different types of PPE, from hooded turnouts in Sweden to jet-style helmets with clip-on SCBA facepieces in Belgium. From my own experience and talking with firefighters from around the world, I became impressed with the level of protection and functionality of the jet-style helmets and even more so of clip-on SCBA facepieces.

Assuming the role of fire chief with Central Whidbey Island, WA, Fire & Rescue (CWIFR) in 2009, I purchased a traditional-style Cairns fire helmet like those purchased by the fire district as part of a complete replacement of PPE completed in 2007. While I would have been quite happy to wear a European jet-style helmet, I was quite aware of the attachment that firefighters have to what is on their head and as the fire chief I had more pressing issues to deal with.

After a trip to Belgium, I brought back a clip-on SCBA facepiece from Dräger and showed our members how this reduces facepiece donning time. The only question I received was: “When are we getting these”? I explained that this style of facepiece attachment would not work with our traditional style helmets and was not approved for use in the U.S.

In 2017, Capt. Jerry Helm approached me with a request to trial a demo model Rosenbauer HEROS-xt helmet. I thought his request was interesting as prior to my appointment as fire chief in 2009, he led the charge to convert to traditional-style helmets. After his brief opportunity to wear this helmet on a day-to-day basis, he advocated to conduct a more thorough 90-day trial by purchasing 10 Rosenbauer HEROS-titan Pro for use by members across the organization.

Jerry Helm, training and recruitment captain, Central Whidbey Island Fire & Rescue

As a young boy who grew up in the fire station with his dad, I loved wearing my father’s fire helmet. At that age I had no clue of the importance of the components or the practicality of a helmet. I only knew I loved it because it was a representation of my father and it even smelled like him. I associated that helmet as a symbol of my father. When I was finally old enough to earn my own, I took great pride in my helmet.

After a few years I realized that my Cairns 660C metro-style helmet wasn’t really what I wanted to wear on my head. Looking back, the only reason I longed for a traditional-style helmet was because of the look. In 1991, when the movie “Backdraft” came out, I wanted to be just like them. Learning that ¾-length boots were no longer compliant or even available, the next best thing was the helmet. I lead a department-wide evaluation and championed for the switch from modern-style fire helmets to traditional-style helmets, inclusive of the switch from tan to PPE. I felt like I had finally made it when we made the switch. I had finally become a “real” firefighter.

As I gained more experience, I noticed that my priorities began to switch ever so slightly. I no longer held such a high regard for the iconic traditional helmet with its golden eagle mounted on the top. I started to notice the shortcomings of all my PPE, not just the helmet. Firefighters were complaining of sore feet, so we looked into leather boots. Suspenders were not lasting very long, so we researched more about leather suspenders. Gloves are a constant issue, and we still exploring options. When I started to hear about issues with the helmets, particularly neck injuries and the lawsuits that were tied to them, I suggested we look at the possibility of different helmets just as we do for the other components of PPE that we find issues with. Almost as soon as it was suggested, there was a mounting opposition against it. I was intrigued with why the helmet got such an emotional reaction to a possible positive change.

I looked at many different styles of helmets, and the newest one to hit the market at the time was the Rosenbauer HEROS-xt. This was my very first exposure to a European-style helmet. I found the helmet substantially lighter (only 3.3 pounds), and in my opinion, it performed better, particularly in diminished clearance or entanglement situations. An added benefit was the ability to look up while crawling during search and rescue in low-visibility situations. Unfortunately, this helmet was a demo that had to be returned to the vendor, but from that point on I was sold on the performance.

A few months later, I received a picture of the new Rosenbauer HEROS-titan Pro being introduced at the Interschutz trade show in Germany. I was immediately impressed by the design and the improvements I noticed over the predecessor I had worn. I checked with the local representative but learned that it was not available yet. Eventually, through some substantial investigation and inquiry, we found some a few years later.

Central Whidbey Island Fire & Rescue’s transition

In 2017, CWIFR decided to conduct a field trial of the Rosenbauer HEROS-titan Pro fire helmet that was being tested to meet NFPA 1851 – Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting (NFPA, 2014). After the testing process and shipping time from Austria to the distributor in Wisconsin and on to Whidbey Island, 10 new helmets were received. Since the district is staffed with a combination of full-time, part-time and volunteer firefighters, we divided the helmets among these three categories of members and across ranks from firefighter to fire chief.

Over a period of three months members assigned the HEROS-titan Pro were asked to provide feedback on their assessment of this jet-style helmet in comparison to the Morning Pride Ben II helmet that was in use by the district. At the conclusion of the three-month trial, evaluation of the feedback indicated that the comfort, balance, weight, eye protection, and overall performance of the HEROS-titan Pro was superior. While overall performance was perceived as better, some members indicated that they experienced some reduction in hearing due to their ears being fully covered by the helmet, but other members did not find it to be significant. Several others simply preferred the traditional look of the Ben II.

Based on the results of this field trial, CWIFR began the process of conversion to the Rosenbauer HEROS-titan Pro as the standard issue helmet. Replacement is being implemented as existing helmets reach the end of their 10-year life span.

The district is committed to continuous improvement and has adopted several concepts and tools from around the world including smoke cooling and anti-ventilation before fire control from Sweden (and supported by research conducted by Underwriters Laboratories); door curtains from Germany; and fog nails from Sweden. While we look beyond our borders, we also embrace the best of what can be found in the U.S. fire service as well. No one nation or fire service agency has all the answers. Best practices can be found across the world in small agencies and large, if we only look for them.
About the Author

Edward Hartin | Editoral Staff

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, FIFireE, CFO has over 40 years as a career firefighter and fire officer and currently serves as fire chief with Central Whidbey Island Fire & Rescue. Hartin is also a member of the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute Advisory Board and vice president of the USA Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers.

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