FIREFIGHTER HELMETS AND FIRE HELMET LIGHTS – Updated
Fire helmets have been around for hundreds of years and come in various shapes and sizes. They are essential and arguably the most sacred of fire gear. Advancements in materials, design and manufacturing have resulted in stronger and lighter weight fire helmets. Advancements in lighting technology (especially with LEDs) have enabled lighting tools to be mounted quickly and easily to firefighter helmets.
The goal of this blog entry is to discuss the different types of helmets used in Fire, Rescue and EMS. We’ll be sure to mention helmet mounted lights along with factors to consider when purchasing fire helmets and lights. We’ll limit the discussion to helmet lights only.
Here’s a list of what we’ll cover in this lengthy (but hopefully practical and informative) blog post.
- Fire Helmets: A Quick History
- Traditional Structural Fire Helmets
- Modern Structural Fire Helmets
- European Gallet Helmets
- Wildland Fire Helmets
- Rescue and EMS Helmets
- Eye and Face Protection
- Why Are Free Hands So Important?
- Consideration Factors When Choosing a Fire Helmet Light
- Side Mounted Fire Helmet lights
- Front Mounted Fire Helmet lights
- Weight Distribution on Fire Helmet
- Brightness and Beam Angle
- Choosing Battery Type
- Safety Features in Fire Helmet Lights
- Are Fire Helmets Available in Different Colors?
- Fire Helmet Manufacturers
- Fire Helmet Light Manufacturers
- What’s Firefighting Really Like?
- The Making of a Leather Fire Helmet
1. Fire Helmets: A Quick History
Jacobus Turck is credited with inventing the first fire cap around 1740 (though some sites suggest it was in 1731). It was made of leather with a high crown and narrow rim. Henry T. Gratacap is credited with the creation of the traditional American fire helmet. He built it around 1836 and called it the “New Yorker” (pictured to the right). FDNY adopted the helmet in the late 1800s.
Two brothers named Cairns are credited with mounting a leather identification badge to the front of Gratacap’s helmet. Those early helmets had an eagle sculpted on the fire helmet as a memorial for a fallen fire fighter in the early 1800s. In Canada, a beaver ornament is used (in place of an eagle).
The New Yorker helmet along with the eagle and leather ID badges are all part of firefighter traditional and are all used to this day in traditional leather firefighter helmets.
2. Traditional Structural Fire Helmets
Key features include:
- Made of leather or composite material
- Rear brim is longer than the front brim
- Brass (eagle, beaver, etc.) at top with leather ID badge
- Reflective tape/stickers (usually) placed around the top of the helmet) for increased visibility).
Traditional helmets are typically the heaviest of all fire helmets and weigh around 5 lbs (2.3 kg).
3. Modern Structural Fire Helmets
Key features include:
- Made of thermoplastic or composite material
- Rear brim is longer than the front brim
- ID leather badge on front; ID sticker or job function written on front or side of helmet
- Reflective tape/stickers are usually placed around top of helmet for increased visibility
Modern helmets weigh around 3.5 lbs (1.6 kg), which is a full 1.5 lbs less than traditional helmets.
4. European Gallet Helmets
European Gallet (AKA F1 or F2) fire helmets look very different (and more futuristic) than American helmets. They are made by MSA (Mine Safety Appliances…who also owns Cairns) and have an integrated shield to protect the face.
Key features include:
- Shell made of high temperature polyamide
- No leather ID badge (unlike American helmets).
- Only side mounted lights can be used.
These helmets weigh around 3.0 lbs (1.4 kg), which is 0.5 lbs less than modern and 2 lbs less than than traditional helmets.
5. Wildland Fire Helmets
Wildland helmets look more like hard hats…but they have a fire resistant shell.
- Come with either a narrow front brim or with a wider brim around the entire helmet.
- Shell is thermoplastic polymer or lightweight Kevlar.
Wildland helmets weigh around 2.2 lbs (1 kg). They are lighter in weight than the structural modern and traditional fire helmets.
6. Rescue and EMS Helmets
Bullard Advent HelmetRescue and EMS helmets typically do not meet NFPA fire resistant requirements (the ability to withstand 500 degrees F for 30 minutes). These lightweight helmets have an inner protective shell and are impact resistant.
Key features include:
- No leather ID badges are used here.
- ID stickers or reflective materials are worn on the side of the helmet.
- Polycarbonate or thermoplastic shell.
Rescue and EMS helmets weigh around 1.5 lb (0.7 kg).
7. Eye and Face Protection
Fire helmets protect the skull well but do not adequately protect a firefighter’s eyes, ears, etc. Protective firefighting hoods (typically made of Nomex or carbon fiber) are sometimes used to protect the neck, ears and face.
In addition, firefighters rely on external faceshields or goggles to protect the eyes. Some new flip down eye shields (including Bourkes and EZ Flips) can mount to the underside of the helmet brim and protect the eyes and face.
Some helmets have face protection integrated into the fire helmet. Examples include Gallet helmets and models that incorporate the Cairns Defender Visor. Goggles made by companies like ESS and Bouton can be used in addition to (or in place of) visors and face shields.
8. Why Are Free Hands So Important In Firefighting?
Two free hands increases productivity by allowing firefighters to more quickly and effectively multi-task or single-task during medical, rescue and fire calls. Free hands permit the use of tools (like chainsaws, shovels and axes) and the ability to more safely and effectively lift and carry items. Free hands also increase firefighter safety by providing better balance and reflex response.
Fire helmet lights enable illumination to follow the eyes. Lights with narrow, focused beams provide more distance vision. Lights with wider beams provide more panoramic lighting (for immediate situation assessment).
Helmet lights are meant to be used in addition to (not instead of) right angle lights and light boxes, which are wonderful and essential pieces of gear.
9. Consideration Factors When Choosing A Fire Helmet Light
There are many different kinds of fire helmets lights available. There is no one best light as each firefighter values things differently. When selecting a light, each firefighter must evaluate what is most important to them. Here are some consideration factors that we’ll explain in more detail below.
- Side versus front mounted
- Weight distribution
- Brightness and beam angle
- Battery type
10. Side Mounted Fire Helmet Lights
Side mounted lights are typically flashlights mounted to the side of the helmet or to a strap. In some cases, hardware is required to mount the holder onto the helmet.
These lights tend to be pretty bright. Some firefighters even use 2 of these lights on their helmet…one over each ear.
- Pros: focused light due to narrower beam angle; may also double as flashlight
- Cons: can cause uneven weight distribution (if only one used); focal point may be off center (to the left or right).
11. Front Mounted Fire Helmet Lights
- Pros: more centered lighting, easier to transfer to other helmets (compared to side mounted lights). Wider beam models give more situation assessment.
- Cons: covers bottom portion of ID shield, can cause uneven weight distribution (unless battery park is in rear).
12. Weight Distribution On Fire Helmet
Fire helmets are designed to be balanced (AKA evenly distributed in weight from side to side and front to back) when worn on the head. Any accessories including lights, wedges and other tools added to the helmet can cause it to tilt to the side, front or back.
Mounting one light to the side of the helmet or using a front mounted light that is one solid piece can cause such tilting.
Some helmet lights (like the one to the right) are built so that the weight is more evenly distributed from side to side and/or front to back. Evenly distributed weight on a helmet is more comfortable to wear, especially for extended periods.
13. Brightness And Beam Angle
Firefighters have varying opinions on what kind of beam pattern they’re looking for along with how bright they’d like their light to be. Some want as much light output as possible while others feel a little light goes a long way. Similarly, some firefighters want a light with a narrow focused beam while others want lights with a wider beam to provide more peripheral lighting.
A combination of focused, peripheral and distance lighting is required in structural firefighting as these environments have more variables including smoke and debris.
In wildland environments, flood lighting is generally preferred over focused lighting.
14. Choosing Battery Type
AA batteries are typically the most preferred by fire departments as they are readily available. Recent advancements in lighting and battery technology have enabled more rechargeable batteries and models to become available.
Regardless of what battery source (alkaline or lithium) you choose, it is important to select lights with battery run times long enough to cover a firefighter’s shift as it’s frustrating to have to change batteries while in the middle of a task.
There are some really bright lights out there that will not last very long out in the field as the battery will drain too quickly. Make sure to purchase a light that is bright enough for your needs and please remember to keep spare batteries handy just in case.
15. Safety Features In Fire Helmet Lights
Within the last decade, some fire helmet lights have incorporated rear colored LEDs (generally red, green or blue) to increase firefighter safety. This is especially helpful in larger scenes to monitor movement of firefighters as well as to identify firefighters in smoky conditions.
Some helmet lights have an adjustable tilt (up and down) to help deliver light where needed.
Yes. The color of one’s fire helmet typically denotes their rank. Departments will typically differ in what colors they use but here’s a general guideline of what colored helmets usually mean in a department:
- Chief = white helmet
- Captain / Lieutenant = red helmet
- Rescue or EMS = blue helmet
- Firefighter = black (or yellow) helmet
17. Fire Helmet Manufacturers
Arranged alphabetically. We apologize for any errors or omissions.
- Bullard: Traditional, Modern, Wildland and Rescue Helmets
- Cairns: Traditional, Modern and Rescue Helmets. Owned by MSA.
- Fire-Dex: Traditional, Modern, Wildland and Rescue Helmets
- Lion Apparel: Traditional, Modern and Rescue Helmets.
- Morning Pride: Traditional, Modern, Wildland and Rescue Helmets. Owned by Honeywell.
- MSA Gallet: European style helmets
- Pacific Helmets Ltd.:Traditional, Modern, Wildland and Rescue Helmets
- Phenix Technology: Traditional, Modern, Wildland and Rescue Helmets
18. Fire Helmet Light (and Headlamp) Manufacturers
The companies below make fire and rescue headlamps. They are listed alphabetically. We apologize for any errors or omissions.
19. What’s Firefighting Really Like?
It depends on where one works and the types of calls their department responds to. We learned of an outstanding web program called “The Battalion” a few years back and we highly recommend that you check it out. Webisodes are around 20 minutes long and follow real firefighters and FDs throughout the US, Canada and Latin America. The show’s motto is “True Reality, Truly Unscripted” and you’ll see why when you watch a webisode. The Battalion works directly with fire departments and films at real fire, rescue, EMS and HazMat scenes.
One super cool part about the show is that they use helmet cams on certain calls, which gives us a glimpse into what fighting a fire is really like. The audience gets to see firsthand how hard it can be at times to see through dense smoke. The pic above is a screenshot showing a view from the helmet camera.
Here’s a shortened YouTube video of a Battalion webisode where Columbus FD fights a house fire.
20. The Making Of A Leather Fire Helmet
Ever wonder how they make a leather fire helmet? Check out the link to the video below (done by MSA Cairns), which shows how leather fire helmets are made. The video also talks about the history of the fire helmet.
Thanks for reading this blog entry. We hope it’s given you a better idea as to the types of fire helmets and fire helmet lights available. Technology will no doubt continue to make first responder tools stronger, lighter and better. We welcome your questions and comments. Thanks again and have a wonderful day wherever you are.