Article and photo by Alex Langbell
Ask any veteran smoke eater if there is one piece of memorabilia they would take with them after a career of fighting fire, and a majority would say their fire helmet. Smoke stained, scratched, chipped, it symbolizes a rewarding, memorable career full of challenges and accomplishments, bravery and brotherhood. More importantly, it protects the gray matter that some say is missing, the commonsense portion that tells non-firefighters to get out of a burning building. As a firefighter for more than two decades, I’ve had numerous objects fall on my head, from a large structural beam to an entire water-soaked ceiling, and every time it’s been the same result– not a scratch on my head. This is largely due to the fact I had a helmet that was built to meet the National Fire Protection Association (NPFA) standard and one that fit correctly.
When New York City Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Henry T. Gratacap designed the first fully functional fire helmet back in the early 1800s, I want to believe that he thought about comfort in addition to designing it to protect the head from falling debris, the tall front shield to break windows, and the rear brim to protect from heat and water. We know now, 200 years later, that comfort is a safety concern. A comfortable helmet will be worn longer with less fatigue. To create this symbol that will someday hang proudly in your residence of retirement, you need to find one that will endure the test of time and trial by fire. You need to make sure the helmet that is assigned to you fits correctly and you are able to wear for hours at a time, whether your lid is a traditional “New York” style helmet or the more streamline “L.A.” style helmet.
The suspension system is the key to a comfortable helmet. You want to make certain your helmet fits you with a good center of gravity, which is established by the intersection of the front and back suspension straps with the side straps. There should be little to no “play” either from side-to-side or front-to-back. You also want to make certain the profile or height of you helmet is as low as possible. This keeps it from being top heavy, adding greater strain to your neck. You want to adjust the front headband to where it sits just above your SCBA mask. You don’t want your helmet to interfere with creating a seal with your mask, and you don’t want the mask to interfere with how your helmet rides on your head. Adjust the rear of the headband to sit below the occipital lobe or the knot at the base of your skull. Your helmet should fit low and evenly with a good center of gravity and enough height so that your helmet isn’t rubbing the tops of your ears.
When you are able to put a little bit of time on the job and given that you have a neck thicker than a pencil, you should barely notice it on your head. If you are constantly taking it off or if it bothers you, think about adjusting your helmet or trying a different style. One that is possibly lighter. There is a myth that a heavier helmet will offer better protection. With today’s technology and the lightweight materials now being used, that is simply not true.
Many believe a smoke-stained helmet is a status symbol. It proves to other firefighters that we’ve been there, done that. What we are finding out is that one possible cause of cancer in firefighters is dirty helmet suspension systems that have direct contact with firefighter’s head. When was the last time you washed the padded material in your suspension system of your helmet? Studies suggest that as we start working, we begin to sweat, our pores open up in our skin and those byproducts of carbon are absorbed directly into your body. To prevent this unnecessary exposure you should inspect and clean your entire helmet on a regular basis. A simple warm-water-and-mild-soap solution will do the trick. Veteran firefighters understands the inherent dangers of our profession and don’t need the added dangers just to show off to others.
A fire helmet is more than just a piece of equipment, it is the iconic symbol of a noble profession of those willing to sacrifice their own safety in order to help others. Find the helmet that fits you and can unconsciously become a part of you. Take care of it and it will protect you throughout your career.
Alex Langbell is a captain with the Yakima (WA) Fire Department.