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Fire helmet selection for the modern world: Beyond knockdown and overhaul

Consider key factors like shell materials, durability, weight and comfort

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Any helmet system must work effectively and efficiently to provide safe and functional head protection.


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The job of firefighter goes far beyond battling the flames and high heat of a room-and-contents fire to include technical rescues and hazmat response efforts, among countless other response types. In this all-hazards environment, firefighters must have a helmet that serves them in the most versatile manner possible.

Style notwithstanding, the fire helmet must be safe and effective, plus lightweight enough to avoid head and neck stress while durable enough to endure many hazardous environments. And while some features are requirements, others are more abstract or rooted in personal preference.

According to NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting (soon to be NFPA 1970, a consolidation of many PPE standards), helmets are required to include several elements:

  • Shell
  • Energy absorption system
  • Retention system
  • Reflective trim
  • Ear covers
  • Faceshield or goggles

Each element must be tested for accelerated impact, physical penetration, heat and flame resistance, electrical resistance and retention/suspension performance.

Beyond these required certifications and minimum standards, the selection of a functional helmet boils down to efficacy, an appropriate balance of comfort and protection and, of course, simple personal preference. Let’s review several factors to look for in a helmet.

Shell materials and efficacy

The early fire service began with the leather helmet. Leather helmets are again certified and recognized as durable and long-lasting, but they are prone to cracking without regular maintenance, have a heavy tip, and are weightier and more expensive when compared to more modern-day composites.

More modern helmet shells are comprised of various combinations of polycarbonates, plastics, fiberglass and glass, as well as various types of resins or glues. Each chemical blend has varying levels of heat, flame and chemical protection.

Thermoplastics are heat- and impact-resistant but susceptible to chemical degradation. Their greatest strength is in their resistance to radiant heat when greater endurance is needed during a structure fire. Early iterations of these helmets were known to blister in high heat due to trapped moisture left over from factory processes; however, newer shells are far advanced from previous helmet incarnations and blister less in these environments.

Fiberglass shells feature better strength data and a greater resistance to chemical degradation. Many of these products may be fiberglass by definition while at the same time retaining many of the composition advantages of thermoplastics.

Cap comfort

The internal “cap,” whether foam or webbing, must be adjustable, mobile for cleaning, repair and replacement, and meet all suspension and energy absorption criteria, all while remaining comfortable for long periods of time. Manufacturers have different systems to satisfy protection, compatibility and comfort requirements. Straps, ratchets, pins, sockets and/or foam hold and stabilize a firefighter’s head.

Whether foam or web suspensions, cap integrity is addressed in fully adaptable height and headband adjustments, cushioned protective liners, and a fully integrated and secure attachment system. The critical element is in the weight and balance of the cap and shell. Any additional weight increases stress and the likelihood of head and neck injuries.

Style preferences

For structural helmets, designers advance task-specific protection into shells, caps, front assemblies and pin applications while maintaining the continuity and look of the fire service. More technical roles seem to push the European helmet style, a full cranial motorcycle-type wraparound shell.

Questions to ask

There are many questions to ask when selecting a fire helmet:

  • Is the helmet approved by your department? Don’t waste time fighting an uphill battle.
  • What are you using a helmet for? Structure fires, rescues, confined space or ceremonial display.
  • Does the helmet fit the individual firefighter for weight, balance and protection?
  • Is it fully optioned and adjustable.
  • Is the helmet modular enough to make it easy to clean and repair? Determine cost effective maintenance.
  • Is the helmet certified, registered and inventory rich? Check availability and the manufacturer’s replacement policy.
  • Will the helmet survive its required 10-year warranty?

Final thoughts

Regardless of shell, cap and unlimited options, all helmet systems must work effectively and efficiently to provide safe and functional head protection. Awkward, cumbersome and heavy movements should be eliminated by finding a helmet that works well across disciplines.

No matter the response type, the shell construction and internal workings of the cap must provide firefighters with a sense of 360-degree protection whenever they don their bucket.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.