A History Of Fire Helmets

The contour of a firefighter's helmet is one of the most famous designs in the firefighting profession.

This timeless design has stood the test of time. Many individuals are unsure if the shape offers a functional purpose or is just ornamental.

The shape of firefighter helmets is determined by their history. Earlier leather or metal hats were shaped to deflect hot water and flames away from the neck and face. 

Modern fire helmets are influenced by this look. This article will discuss the shape of fire helmets by providing a brief history of their characteristics through time.

Why Are Fire Helmets Shaped That Way? A Brief History

The First Fire Helmet: Leather Helmets

The first American fire helmet was designed in the 1830s by a New York City luggage manufacturer who had been a volunteer firefighter and was looking for a better design than that of the stovepipe helmets that were in use at the time. 

Stovepipe was just a rigid leather top hat with a painted insignia to identify the fire company, but it offered no real protection. 

The favored material was leather, since it was familiar to the inventor, Henry Gratacap, and strong prepared leather was fire-resistant and exceedingly resilient to falling apart.

A brass eagle decoration was typically mounted to the top front of a conventional leather helmet to attach a leather guard to the helmet front, however it also functioned as a glass-breaking mechanism in the original design.

Leather helmets have lost favor, with only a few fire services in North America, like those in New York and Houston, still using them.

For the brass adornment, Canadian fire companies (for example, Toronto Fire Services) utilize a beaver instead of an eagle. 

These leather helmets, and also later adaptations that keep the traditional form but use lightweight, more contemporary composites, are still quite common in North America and other countries with North American firefighting heritage.

The history of the eagle may be traced back to around 1825. For the grave of a volunteer firefighter, an unknown sculptor produced a memorial figure of an eagle. 

Before that, firefighters didn't even wear eagles, but they have since become synonymous with fire helmets. Because the beaver is Canada's national animal, firefighters in Canada wear it on their helmets.

These decorations extend out from the helmet and frequently caused harm by catching on window sashes, cables, and other impediments. 

As a result, many fire departments now issue classic helmets without eagles or beavers.

Some fire departments, on the other hand, continue to wear the original style leather helmets as nothing more than a matter of heritage.

Modern Fire Helmets

Throughout the last 168 years of service, the "New Yorker" style of helmet has rarely changed. It retains the very same design and is constructed to the highest standards that firemen have grown to expect.

The leather is tanned cowhide, and the duckbill on the back of some helmets prevents water from flowing down onto a firefighter's gear.

The firefighter's helmet is undeniably an incredible piece of apparel that stands out in a community and helps to define the wearer's identity.

Thermoplastic and composite components are used in modern structural helmets (those meant for structure fires). 

These helmets were created to have a more modern, sleeker appearance and be lighter in weight than classic American helmets, while still maintaining the distinctive profile.

A face guard can be fitted to the front if required.

Newer Metro helmets (a term coined by many major helmet manufacturers) have thinner brims and rounded corners, making them significantly lighter than classic leather and composite helmets. 

However, designs that resemble the traditional New York American helmet design have remained popular in both leather and composite due to their continued usefulness and a common affinity for tradition or classic aesthetic.

Both styles are still produced in parallel in North America. In the rest of the US, the New York and Metro helmets are both popular. 

The Metro style is often used in Australia and Asian countries, although they lack the shield on the front and instead display the local fire authority's emblem or logo. 

Many nations outside of the United States, particularly Europe, employ a different design of fire helmet that protects much of the head and may include a rear nape protector. 

This model is known as a "Euro" helmet, and most come with a full face shield, protective eyewear, and a chin strap.

Why Are Modern Fire Helmets Shaped That Way?

Why Are Fire Helmets Shaped That Way

Of course, the shape of a fire helmet serves a functional purpose, and although fire helmets have evolved over time, its essential practical duties have remained constant.

The strengthened dome is designed to protect firefighters from being injured if anything ever falls on their heads. Breaking windows is also made possible with the shield.

The neck is protected, and when the helmet is reversed and pointed down, the face of a fireman is also protected. In other words, it's a highly useful piece of equipment.

Fire Helmet Colors And Ranks 

The color of a firefighter's helmet is used to represent the rank of the firefighter. 

So a chief would wear a white helmet, a captain would wear a white helmet with a white front, an engine company firefighter would wear a black helmet, while a ladder company firefighter would wear a red helmet. 

When they first introduced rescue companies to the fire department, their helmets were blue.

These colors are not used by all departments anymore and may vary depending upon local traditions and regulations.

In addition to having numbers on them, the shields worn by firefighters on their helmets may show their rank. For example, a bugle denotes an engine company officer, while a pick-axe head indicates a ladder company officer.

Final Thoughts

Fire helmets have an interesting history and have changed quite a bit over the years.

Nowadays, while some fire departments are concerned with keeping up traditional fire helmet designs, most fire helmets are created with optimal safety features in mind.