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Getting the best eye protection

Eye protection that attaches to the fire helmet has been long debated, but the need for protection is not

Do you remember the old Miller Lite Beer commercials? You know, the ones that had former star athletes debating whether the best attribute of the beer was that it was “less filling” or that the beer “tastes great.”

We see the same sort of debate going on in the fire service when it comes to what matters most for firefighter eye protection. On one side are advocates for performance while the other side argues for protection. Which one matters most? Both!

The performance advocates cite, and rightly so, NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting (2007 Edition) which sets the fire service standard for how individual components of a firefighter’s protective ensemble should perform under fire combat conditions. In this case, the standard addresses eye protection.

For eye protection, NFPA 1971 requires that fire helmets come with either a protective face shield or goggles. When designing eye protection products for the fire service, manufacturers must address the following:

  • The ability of the lens to maintain its integrity following impact from an object;
  • The ability of the lens to maintain its integrity following exposure to heat and flame; and
  • The ability of the lens to provide the wearer with a clear field of view.


In addition to performance, eye protection must also meet the requirements set forth in NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program (2007 Edition).

NFPA 1500 provides guidance and direction for how fire service organizations should protect its members from the occupational safety and health hazards of the job. The requirements of NFPA 1500 for firefighter eye protection include:

  • The use of primary eye protection whenever a firefighter is operating on a fire ground without a SCBA facepiece in use; and
  • Definition of primary eye protection as protection that meets the spectacle or goggle requirements of ANSI/ISEA Z87.1: American National Standard for Occupational and Educational Eye and Face Protection, which is an additional product performance standard.

When looking at eye protection options, fire department leaders must understand that the equipment they select must also meet the requirements of ANSI Z87.1. Why? Because of that last bulleted item.

The requirements of ANSI Z87.1 stipulate that only spectacles (safety glasses) and goggles are considered full eye protection; faces shields are not.

ANSI/ISEA Z87.1-2010 establishes performance criteria and testing requirements for devices used to protect the eyes and face from injuries from impact, non-ionizing radiation and chemical exposure in workplaces and schools. It covers all types of protector configurations including spectacles (plain and prescription), goggles, faceshields, welding helmets and full facepiece respirators.

As any firefighter will tell you, eye-protection equipment is only going to be used consistently if: it’s easy to use; it meets their needs; and they can see through it. Several manufacturers of firefighting helmets have introduced new products that are designed to meet those requirements as well as the performance and protection requirements.

Self-Storing Eye Shields
Honeywell’s Internal EZ Touch Face and Eye Protection incorporates Honeywell’s proprietary EZ Touch feature that provides a firefighter with one-touch deployment of their face and eye protection.

The face shield stows internally within the helmet and provides an adjustment capability for better individualized fit. Additional features include a safety lock and a cushioned nose guard and release at the touch of a gloved finger for quick one-hand deployment.

MSA’s Defender Visor for the Cairns 1010 and 1044 models of traditional-style fire helmets also provides eye protection from dust, dirt and grit. The Defender Visor retracts within the helmet until eye protection is needed.

This system also allows fast, easy raising and lowering of the visor even with gloved hands and can be retrofitted to existing Cairns model 1010 and 1044 helmets. The Defender Visor systems comes standard on Cairns 660C Metro and Invader 664 model fire helmets.

Especially in light of the changes in the 2010 edition of ANSI Z87.1 —regarding what constitutes full eye protection — goggles that integrate with the firefighter’s helmet are getting the attention of helmet manufacturers.

While there are many models of goggles, available in all price ranges, I’ve always had an issue with getting a good fit. With the goggles mounted on top of the helmet, one has to remove them in order to properly don them or pull them down over the front of the helmet; the latter tends to result in a less than desired fit and stretches out the restraining band over time.

The ESS Innerzone Structural Firefighting Goggles are NFPA 1971-2000 compliant and come with: ESS Instant Fit Speed Clips for quick attachment and removal from the helmet; a thick polycarbonate ballistic lens that has been hard coated and anti-fog treated both inside and out; flame resistant high temperature elastic strap; filtered and fully ventilated frame; and a face fit that accommodates most eye glasses.

I really like this development in firefighting protective eyewear because it attaches under the helmet, which makes it easier to get the goggles into the proper position for use.

The most important aspect of any eye protection is that it must be used in all applicable situations. We humans rely extensively on our sense of sight and we only get one pair of original equipment.


Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.