Full disclosure: I am not a big fan of how most of the North American fire and emergency services provide personal protection from the neck up.
Specifically, this includes protection of the head during nonfire activities – which is the bulk of our responses. Eye and face protection is extremely void of any defined or standard design application for nonstructural responses. This month’s column is intended to give you and the collective fire and emergency services something to think about.
To underscore this disclosure, a national survey (6,655 respondents) conducted earlier this year revealed that 61 percent of firefighters use eye and face protection that is not provided with their helmet. Of those 61 percent, safety glasses were used by 83 percent of those respondents. There is minimal use of face shields and/or goggles that come with helmets. How can I say that? During FDIC International, I paid particular attention to the videos of the H.O.T. training evolutions that occurred on the days before the general sessions. And, I studied the hundreds of photos that lined the walls in the long corridor between the Convention Center and the Lucas Oil Stadium. With several hundred examples, I found only one occurrence of helmet-provided eye protection being deployed. Almost without fail, firefighters had chosen to disregard the face shields, flip-downs, and goggles that come with helmets. In fact, a significant number of firefighters were wearing helmets without any eye/face protection. What were they using? Safety glasses. Safety glasses provide far superior protection over the ineffective protection provided with helmet-supplied face and eye protection. They are form fitting, may be sunglasses, and may have corrective lenses. NOTE: For structural firefighting, the self-contained breathing apparatus face piece, combined with a hood, provides excellent eye and face protection.
Are there better alternatives? Perhaps. Many fire departments have already adopted a policy of issuing two sets of turnout gear to its members. Other departments are aggressively seeking funding to do likewise. Typically, the second set consists of a turnout coat, turnout pants, a hood, and maybe a pair of gloves. Rarely is a second set of boots or a helmet issued. Since this topic is titled “From the Neck Up,” boots will not be discussed.
However, there might be a slightly different approach to issuing a second helmet. That approach is to offer only one structural helmet but then offer another multipurpose helmet. But first, why issue only one structural helmet? Because the need for a structural helmet for actual fire suppression is not nearly as high as the need for head, face, and eye protection for nonactive firefighting activities. One structural helmet should suffice if the helmet has a removable head band that could be easily cleaned or if each member were offered a second headband. Cleaning a helmet outershell is not that complicated and typically does not require any special equipment.
A Multipurpose Helmet
The thought of a multipurpose helmet occurred to me when I had a chance to participate in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Services Symposium in Glasgow this past May. The sponsors of the Symposium were allotted tabletop displays. One of the tables displayed a helmet that was designed for urban search and rescue (USAR), paramedic, and water rescue. The only nonstructural application it did not cover was wildland firefighting. Perhaps it could be redesigned or modified for wildland.
The uniqueness of this helmet was its modular design with multiple options. For example, eye protection similar to European designed flip-down eyeshields could be attached. Or, the user might opt to have a pair of good-quality safety glasses available. The helmet had optional attachment points for goggles. It had a quick-attach polycarbonate face shield that provides far more face coverage than the face shields commonly used in North America today. In addition, the same attachment points could be used to attach a full-face mesh screen like the type professional chainsaw and other equipment operators, who are susceptible to small, fast-flying debris. There was a quick attachment point for a flashlight to allow hands-free operation. All the options just described are quick-attach, quick-detach accessories that allow the helmet to be customized for the application.
A couple of other unique features of the helmet were notable. The ridge of the helmet had something like a shutter system that could be opened and closed to allow for ventilation. This was remarkable to me because the body releases heat faster through the top of the head than at any other place. Another option is a series of holes, approximately ½ inch in diameter, placed appropriately in the helmet shell to allow water to pass through. While I don’t claim to be an expert about underwater rescue or swift water rescue, the ability to allow water to pass through the helmet while it is snugly attached to the wearer seems like a no-brainer.
In my mind, it is not realistic to think that a separate piece of head protection is needed for each of the following applications: structural fire, wildland fire, USAR, high-angle, swift water, underwater, and emergency medical service. Why not just two helmets – one for structural firefighting and one for everything else? This would also go a long way in minimizing contamination associated with using the dirty structural firefighting helmet being used for everything. Something to think about.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career included 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).