Firefighter Head Protection Embraces Technology

Alan M. Petrillo

Safety starts at the top-the top of the firefighter’s head, that is. The firefighter’s helmet has long protected him from heat, falling objects, and other hazards. Today, manufacturers of structural firefighting helmets are putting added protection into their products in an effort to give firefighters the best safeguard against hazards while providing the most comfortable fit possible.

Tradition vs. Modern

Matt DeLorenzo, MSA’s product line manager for Cairns helmets, says that firefighters tend to be very traditional but have embraced different forms of helmets over the years. “The two main styles of fire helmets in North America are the traditional look and the modern style, which has a more rounded shape,” DeLorenzo says. “The modern style started to overtake the traditional in usage in the 1990s, and at that time Cairns was selling 60 percent modern helmets to 40 percent traditional. But after September 11, 2001, there was a big switch back to the traditional style helmet so that now Cairns is selling 65 percent traditional helmets to 35 percent modern.”

Cairns Defender visor

(1) MSA makes the Cairns Defender
visor for its line of helmets, shown
here on a traditional style helmet. The
Defender visor retracts up inside the
helmet shell, protecting it from
damage when stowed and putting it
closer to the eye for greater
protection when deployed. (Photo
courtesy of MSA.)

 

Eye Protection

MSA acquired Cairns in 2000 and in succeeding years launched a number of new helmets and innovations, including the Defender visor for traditional helmets, DeLorenzo points out. “We took the idea from European style helmets,” he says. “The Defender visor retracts up inside the helmet shell where it stays cleaner; is less likely to become damaged; and, when deployed, puts its protection closer to the eye.” The Defender is available on all fiberglass models of Cairns traditional and modern helmets.

Thomas Stachler, product manager for helmets at Honeywell First Responder Products, says his company’s new EV1 structural helmet features a self-deploying spring-loaded lens and eye protection that’s internal to the helmet’s shell. “The eye protection sits in between the helmet’s suspension ring system and its shell,” Stachler says. “It is deployed by pushing up on it where a drag wheel lowers it so it doesn’t bang down onto the nose. It also has a safety latch on the right side to lock the shield in the up position, which keeps it from accidentally opening up or for when it’s in storage.”

The EV1 also has a leather brow pad and three hook-and-loop tabs to allow easy adjustment of the headband height. “There’s an optional goggle strap attachment for single- or two-strap goggles to be locked in,” Stachler notes. “If you remove the helmet, the goggles stay with it. The straps are in line above the ears so they are pulling parallel and back toward the face instead of being attached to the helmet’s brim where there’s a pull on the bottom of the goggles.”

EV1 structural firefighting helmet

(2) Honeywell First Responder Products makes the EV1 structural
firefighting helmet that has a self-deploying spring-loaded lens and
eye protection internal to the helmet’s shell. (Photo courtesy of
Honeywell First Responder Products.)

 

Stachler adds that the EV1 has a chin strap unique to Honeywell-a four-point strap that’s snapped onto the sides and screwed into the back. “The chin strap has a fantail triangle 1¾ inches big, is leather-reinforced, and has [hook and loop fasteners] on both sides,” he says, “so it can be found easily. The firefighter doesn’t have to worry about its orientation; he just slaps it on.” He notes that the Fire Department of New York currently is using the four-point chin strap and that it is available on all the helmet models Honeywell makes.

Adjust to Fit

Dave McClaskey, fire personal protective equipment product manager for Lion, says that helmets perform the best when they fit the best, and that happens when firefighters use the full range of helmet adjustments available to them. “Heads are different shapes and something designed to take an impact can’t do its job without fitting properly,” McClaskey says. “The headband adjustment mechanism on Lion’s helmets has been modified to allow for a greater range of adjustments in the circumference and the height.”

Legacy 5, a fiberglass modern style helmet

(3) Lion makes its Legacy 5 as a fiberglass
modern style helmet, constructing it from a
preformed fiberglass mold using low
pressure and heat on two separate
fiberglass layers for a lower profile and
greater strength. (Photo courtesy of Lion.)

 

DeLorenzo agrees that overall ride height and comfort are important considerations in a structural firefighting helmet. “You have to have a certain amount of clearance between the inner shell and the helmet shell,” he says. “Our overall ride height is tied to the center of balance and gravity in the helmet, and we’ve been able to achieve the lowest ride height in the industry.”

Cairns also made a change recently that allows better out-of-the-box comfort, DeLorenzo adds. “We have a three-position ratchet at the back that tightens the helmet on the firefighter’s head,” he says. “We set it at the lowest setting to allow the ratchet to sit low and grab the nape of the neck, which gives the best ride for most people. But a firefighter can adjust it up a notch or two if that’s necessary.”

Helmet Construction

McClaskey notes that Lion makes a traditional leather helmet in its American Heritage line, a traditional fiberglass helmet as its American Classic, and a fiberglass modern style helmet as its Legacy 5. “In our fiberglass helmets, we don’t use high-temperature high-pressure molding but do a fiberglass preform by hand and use low pressure and low heat on two different fiberglass layers-a structural layer and a woven layer. That allows us to achieve a low profile and makes the helmet shell itself stronger.”

Fire-Dex's 1910 traditional model structural firefighting helmet

(4) Fire-Dex’s 1910 traditional model structural
firefighting helmet offers fiberglass over a full-head
protection impact shell inside the outer shell. The
outer shell has breakaway tabs to allow it to break
away under impact, while the inner shell remains
secured to the firefighter’s head for protection. (Photo
courtesy of Fire-Dex.)

 

McClaskey says that Lion is experimenting with lighter weight resins for helmet shells but is in the midst of testing to see how well they respond to the rigors of structural firefighting. “We’re also considering what the next generation Lion helmet will be,” he says. “We’re looking at different eye protection-perhaps a goggle system-and maybe more of a fighter-pilot-type helmet shell that fits more snugly and integrates lights into it.”

DeLorenzo says that until this year, Cairns used a Kevlar composite in its traditional Cairns 1000 helmet and its Modern Intruder 990. “The overall cost benefit of working with Kevlar wasn’t paying off,” he says. “It’s difficult to work with and hard to mold inside the helmet shell, so it didn’t make good economic sense.” However, Cairns has added thermal and impact protection inside its helmet shells and uses a tube lock suspension, DeLorenzo points out. “The suspension is mounted to a tube so when it is impacted, the suspension stretches and pulls on the tube. Latex bands hold the nylon tube together and the system spreads the forces out, pushing them away from the head and neck.”

Allen Rom, senior regional sales manager for Fire-Dex, says his company acquired the Chieftain brand of fiberglass helmets in 2007 and they have evolved into the Fire-Dex 1910 traditional model and the 911 modern style. “Both helmet models come with full head protection, which is an impact shell inside that looks like a bicycle helmet,” Rom says. “It covers the whole head inside the helmet, and if a firefighter falls, the outer shell has breakaway tabs that allow it to break away, but the impact shell will stay on the firefighter’s head. And with a full impact shell, there are no air pockets so there is no heat transfer.”

Bullard's modern style structural firefighting helmet

(5) Bullard’s modern style structural
firefighting helmet is the LT series, made
with a thermoplastic outer shell, a Sure-
Lock ratchet headband, and an M-Pack
liner system. (Photo courtesy of Bullard.)

 

Fire-Dex also modified the shape and design of the suspension system and changed the foam impact shell so the helmet sits lower on a firefighter’s head. “Our suspension system is made of surgical tubing material that runs around the impact shell to take up any impact force instead of transmitting it,” Rom observes. “For the shell, we use fiberglass resin that’s colored throughout instead of polyurethane-injected shells that have to be painted.”

Angel Sanchez Jr., chief operating officer for Phenix Technology, says his company’s helmets have maintained their structure and design since the firm first started in 1972. “Our helmet is the First Due, which is a contemporary style with an ergonomic design so it sits well centered on the firefighter’s head,” Sanchez says. “There’s not too much weight either in front or back and there are no right angles on it so it deflects falling debris well.”

Sanchez points out the weight of the First Due helmet is just over two pounds. “We also make the TL2 traditional leather helmet, which is the lightest leather helmet on the market at 55 ounces,” he notes. “It’s an all handmade leather outer shell over a thermoplastic inner dome. Our TC1 is a fiberglass composite traditional helmet that looks similar to the traditional leather but is at a more affordable price.”

All of Phenix Technology’s helmets use the same suspension system, Sanchez maintains, “that provides a low profile and distributes the weight in an even way.”

First Due helmet

(6) Phenix Technology makes the First Due helmet in a
contemporary style with an ergonomic design that helps it sit
centered on a firefighter’s head. (Photo courtesy of Phenix
Technology.)

 

John Hays, product line manager for emergency responders at Bullard, says Bullard makes a traditional style helmet, the UST, with an outer shell of Thermoglas available in either matte or glossy finish. UST series helmets also are available with TrakLite Integrated Helmet Lighting consisting of eight forward-facing LED lights.

Bullard’s modern style structural firefighting helmet is the LT series, with a high-heat thermoplastic outer shell, a Sure-Lock ratchet headband, a four-point crown strap assembly, an M-Pact liner system, and a SmartRidge design.

Constant Improvement

With regard to new materials being used in helmets, Hays notes, “We think thermoplastic materials set the standard for the needs of most firefighters.” He adds, “There have been advancement in materials improving durability and heat resistance of face shields and goggles options are becoming more streamlined, particularly with the latest offering from ESS, the Fire Pro.”

DeLorenzo notes that Cairns continues to seek opportunities to improve its products. “There are new materials being developed for other applications that might be used in helmet design,” he says. “There are carbon fibers and other such materials, but they have to be tested for use in helmets. But science will continue to move forward with lighter, stronger materials.”

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

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