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FireRescue1 roundtable: Industry insights on fire helmets

What to look for in a helmet now, and tomorrow

By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

The helmet may be one of the most important pieces of equipment you have. To better understand what to look for when buying a fire helmet and what to expect from helmets in the coming years, we collected experts from three major manufacturers and posed a few key questions. Our experts include Matt DeLorenzo, MSA product line manager for helmets and communications systems; Karen Lehtonen, Lion's director of products; and Thomas Stachler, Honeywell's product manager of gloves and helmets.

Meet the Experts

Matt DeLorenzo is MSA's product line manager for helmets and communications systems.

 

 

Karen Lehtonen is Lion's director of products.

 

 

 

Thomas Stachler is Honeywell's product manager of gloves and helmets.

 

What are the top three key factors when choosing a fire helmet?

MSA's DeLorenzo: Safety features (in addition to what is required by the NFPA standards), comfort, and options.

Lion's Lehtonen: Fit and comfort: The way a firefighting helmet sits on a firefighter's head is very important in reducing stress to the neck and shoulders. The balance is also important to ensure it is not too top heavy or wobbly. Finally, the ability to accommodate a wide range of head sizes and shapes is important so that you are getting the best fitting helmet thus reducing fatigue. The more adjustment mechanisms beyond a ratchet knob (headband circumference, headband depth/height, front to back and left to right adjustments), the more likely you can achieve a custom fit.

Materials of construction: The helmet shell materials are just as important as the outer shell material in your turnout gear. The helmet shell is the first point of impact, and its ability to resist penetration or impact is key to the level of protection provided. The helmet shell should be rigid enough to resist impact and penetration, yet be able to provide enough of a cushion so as to not transfer energy to the wearer.

Durability: The helmet materials of construction have to be strong enough to stand the test of time — run after run, fire after fire. Firefighters need a helmet that can stand up to the everyday challenges faced in the line of duty, including impact, heat resistance and potential chemical exposure. Materials whose physical properties change when exposed to high heat weaken over time. That's why it's so important to ensure the construction of the shell does not degrade or change in physical properties after repeated exposure to heat.

Honeywell's Stachler: First it has to be certified to the NFPA 1971 Standard followed by comfort and balance and then design. By that I mean, how does it interface with your SCBA mask, is it easy to adjust, how well does it adapt with other eye and face protection and accessories?

 

Are there things that should never be considered when choosing a helmet?

Stachler: I would have to say image and cost.

DeLorenzo: No. It really comes down to the firefighter's style preference.

Lehtonen: Never consider a structural firefighting helmet that is not NFPA-compliant. The NFPA 1971 standard is in place to ensure firefighters have the PPE and protection needed for structural firefighting activities. Never pick looks, style or catchy features over safety. This includes aftermarket options and accessories that may reduce the performance of your helmet or hinder your operational abilities.

 

What is your biggest design challenges?

Lehtonen: The biggest challenges that structural fire helmet manufacturers have is finding the right balance of design and performance requirements in conjunction with the NFPA 1971 standard with a lightweight, comfortable and highly protective helmet. Comfort is subjective, so what one firefighter finds extremely comfortable, the guy next to him may find unbearable.

Stachler: The biggest challenge is making a helmet as light as possible, ride low, fully featured and certifiable to the NFPA 1971 standard. 

DeLorenzo: Establishing an appropriate balance between helmet form (style, comfort, weight, height, etc) and function (safety).

 

What safety developments do you anticipate over the next five years?

DeLorenzo: Improvements to helmet accessories. Firefighters should anticipate safety benefits from integrated eyewear and communications over the next five years. The NFPA standard update will encourage some of those changes, but the primary driver for MSA has been and continues to be firefighter feedback. New helmet options that will enhance a firefighter's situational awareness and accommodate station-specific needs.

Lehtonen: The fire service will continue to see new innovations in eye and face protection. Helmet shell materials that are lighter in weight and provide increased strength continue to be evaluated. Compatibility and interface of the helmet with other components of a firefighter's PPE ensemble that reduce operational burden and increase safety are always things we consider as we look at innovating our fire PPE products.

Stachler: I believe we will always trend toward newer, lighter materials while still providing superior protection. However, I believe the most important safety development would be to provide sight to the firefighter through heads up thermal imaging cameras in the SCBA mask or mounted to the helmet. 

 

What accessory developments do you anticipate over the next five years?

Stachler: I know there is a lot of activity going on with tracking and accountability and I believe we will see a system the will work and be affordable.

DeLorenzo: Integrated eye protection, integrated communication systems and helmet lighting systems.

Lehtonen: There are many accessories available to firefighters today, some which do not increase the performance of a helmet and can actually contribute to making the helmet heavier and reducing the balance. All accessories should be evaluated to determine the benefit and ensure they do not reduce the level of protection. Some areas for future development include customization and identity features, eye and face protection (in addition to the requirements of NFPA 1971), and options for increasing visibility and recognition.

 

Does NFPA 1971 help or hinder your market?

Lehtonen: Primarily NFPA 1971 helps our market by setting the bar for manufacturers to ensure a level of protection for the fire service. In fact, many manufacturers exceed these requirements. Third-party certification to the NFPA standard verifies not only design and performance requirements, but also ensures that a manufacturer operates under a certain level of quality and verifies this in ongoing audits and testing. However, the NFPA technical committee must remain vigilant with emerging technologies and ensure the standard is commensurate with the needs of the fire service. As for helmets, the majority of the requirements have essentially remained unchanged in the last three revision cycles. And the fire service must have its voice heard so that the industry can respond to its needs appropriately.

Stachler: I think it benefits the fire service by providing a minimal level of safety performance requirements and in most cases keeps dangerous products from entering the market. 

DeLorenzo: It helps the market, because the head protection equipment standard ensures that firefighters are protected in the line of duty, regardless of the brand they choose.

 

What is the outlook for the helmet market in the U.S. and beyond the U.S. borders?

DeLorenzo: This will continue to be a steady market. We will always need the fire service, and firefighters will need dependable head protection. Beyond the U.S. borders, we will continue to see improvements to the market as education related to firefighter safety drives awareness and standards adoption.

Lehtonen: Helmets are no longer considered a commodity item of PPE. They are now getting the recognition they deserve as a critical component of the protective ensemble. Helmets are increasing in effectiveness to protect the wearer. Users are spending more time researching and being more diligent in conducting wear tests to make sure they are selecting the right helmet. This enables manufacturers to collect more feedback to design and develop better performing and more durable helmets. Outside the U.S., many other countries look at NFPA-certified helmets as a model due to the high level of protection afforded. The market continues to emerge and develop in these areas.

Stachler: I believe there will be a trend toward the European jet-style helmet, but it will be an uphill battle. I have heard a few departments are trying it, more are talking about it. Just four or five years ago you would be run out of the firehouse for just bring it up. As a manufacturer, moving beyond our boarders will require an understanding of the markets traditions and adapting to new product offerings that meet their wants and needs at competitive prices while still bring something new and innovative to the offering. If you are referring to helmet sales, I would say flat due to the economy and the fact helmets just don't wear out.




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