Helmets: The 10-Year Service Life

By Robert Tutterow

A recent New York Post article about Fire Department of New York (FDNY) firefighters and the disposal of their old helmets created quite a buzz in the fire service networking community. The firefighters were upset on two counts. First, they saw no reason to turn in their helmets because they were 10 years old. Second, if they wished to keep their old helmets as keepsakes (not for use in the field), they had to pay for the helmets. The amount depended on years of service. It was $100 for less than 20 years, $50 for 20-30 years, and free for more than 30 years.

The basis of this controversy is the personal protective equipment (PPE) retirement criteria found in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. The standard requires that any element (helmet, hood, gloves, boots, turnout coat, and trousers) of the PPE ensemble be removed from service after ten years from the date of manufacture. This requirement has been in effect for several years. However, the FDNY story brought the issue to the forefront.

(1) Many PPE items, especially helmets, remain in use far too long. (Photo by author.)

A Long Time Coming

The NFPA Technical Committee responsible for this document has discussed PPE retirement for many, many years. The committee was in total agreement that there is PPE in use that can no longer provide firefighter life safety protections. After extensive debate, there was a general consensus that PPE elements should not be left in service after 10 years. The focus of this discussion was on turnout coats and pants. Once there was a consensus, there was little controversy over hoods, gloves, and footwear. However, there was, and continues to be, disagreement on retiring helmets. Important to note is that many within the fire service think the retirement criteria are driven by the manufacturers so they can sell more products. That is simply not true. It was the fire service that pushed the technical committee to develop minimum requirements for retiring PPE.

For the soon-to-be-released 2013 revision of NFPA 1851, FDNY and other fire departments submitted public proposals, and later public comments, requesting that helmets be exempt from the 10-year retirement criteria. Their proposals and comments were rejected by the committee. The reasoning for rejecting was based on three factors: “(1) Since the NFPA standards are revised every five years, the ten years represents two revision cycles which incorporate significant enough performance enhancements in ensembles and ensemble elements to warrant retirement of PPE 10 years from the date of manufacture. (2) In the absence of a scientifically validated test method that would support modifying or eliminating the current mandatory retirement of 10 years, the Technical Committee confirmed the existing 10-year requirement for all PPE. (3) In the absence of a non-destructive test or evaluation methods that can conclusively and reliably determine that PPE remains compliant with the performance requirements in place at the time of manufacture, the committee continues to support the existing retirement criteria.”

There was a public comment to allow helmets to remain in use for 15 years. This comment was rejected for the same factors listed above. There were also proposals and comments to allow retired PPE to be used in a “loaner” program. However, the Technical Committee rejected this idea because, by definition, “loaner” PPE is used in the field.

That said, the NFPA Motions Committee has decided to reconsider a notice of intent to make a motion (NITMA) to exempt helmets from the 10-year rule. It will be brought before the general membership at next year’s NFPA Conference and Expo in June.

NFPA 1851 is quite clear that PPE elements that are more than 10 years old should be destroyed or disposed of in a manner that they cannot be used for firefighting or for live fire training. They can be “marked” and used for nonlive fire training such as a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) maze and ground ladder training.

Why Pay?

It is perplexing that FDNY is asking the firefighters to pay for their helmets if they want to keep them. Once helmets are more than 10 years old, they have no resale value. They cannot be sold to other fire departments without severe legal implications. It must be noted that since the article was published, one council member is on record saying the firefighters should keep their helmets (as keepsakes) at no charge regardless of length of service.

The crux of the issue might be found in a quote from the New York Post article by one FDNY firefighter: “Your helmet isn’t just your piece of safety equipment. It’s a badge of honor. It shows how many fires you’ve been to. Look at the soot on my helmet.” It is time the fire service moves beyond using PPE as a “badge of honor.” We seem to be making progress in this area except for helmets. Based on what we now know, and continue to learn, sooty helmets are a health risk; soot is a contaminant.

There is no doubt that retiring PPE, especially helmets, will remain an issue. This is underscored by another large metro fire department where its firefighters were wearing helmets worn by their fathers and their grandfathers! Personally, I would want those helmets preserved and displayed as family heirlooms.

One way to gain a better understanding of PPE and the workings of the NFPA Technical Committees is to attend conferences that cover PPE. One conference is the F.I.E.R.O. Fire PPE Symposium. The Symposium includes a tour of T-PACC (Total Protection and Comfort Center) at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. T-PACC is the premier firefighting PPE research and testing facility in the world. For information, visit www.fireppesymposium.

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 includes 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 Equipment Research Organization (FI.E.R.O.).

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