How to buy fire helmet-mounted eye shields

Before you buy eye protection, you must know what is acceptable and what is not — and yes, that includes a hard look at Bourkes

I'll never forget putting on my leather firefighter helmet for the first time after my graduation from rookie school in August 1982. With its Engine 11 front piece and Bourke eye shields, what was not to like? And it weighed about one third of what today's leather helmet weighs.

Much has changed in the way of firefighter health, safety and welfare since that time. One thing that apparently is not changing so much is firefighters and officers wearing helmets with Bourke eye shields.

There's just one problem with that. Helmets capable of meeting the requirements of the 2013 NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, are not compliant if the only eye protection mounted to the helmet are Bourke eye shields.

In the 2007 edition of NFPA 1971, not all components shipped attached to a fire helmet were subjected to the NFPA 1971 heat and thermal shrinkage test — 500 degrees for 5 minutes in a convective oven.

According to Section A7.4.4(8) of the standard's 2013 edition, however, "Any component that is attached to the helmet by the helmet manufacturer before shipment" is considered part of the helmet assembly and must be subjected to the heat test.

Put to the test
For all performance testing involving the helmet and its components, NFPA uses a medium-sized facial feature head form, a mannequin head, as specified in ANSI/ISEA Z87.1, Occupational and Educational Personal Eye and Face Protection Devices. So let's take a look at what facial protection is required and how facial protection equipment is tested.

First of all, the field of vision is measured from the center of the eye on the head form. When the helmet faceshield or faceshield and goggle component is deployed, it must meet at least these three field of vision parameters.

  • Dihedral angle of at least 85 degrees.  
  • Upper dihedral angle (from eyes straight ahead upward) of at least 10 degrees.
  • Lower dihedral angle (eyes straight ahead downward) of at least 40 degrees.

When properly positioned, the helmet with the faceshield or the faceshield and goggle component in the stowed position must provide peripheral vision clearance of at least 94 degrees to each side.

Bourke eye shields were initially designed at a time when there was little else in the way of any eye protection at all; SCBA's were out there but certainly never commonly worn as they are today.

In today’s world, according to NFPA, the best eye and face protection — not to mention your respiratory system — is a properly worn SCBA facepiece. And since the research into firefighter cancer and heart disease rates is increasingly showing that SCBA should be worn anytime a firefighter is in the hazard area — including during overhaul — that takes care of the eye and face protection during overhaul, right?

Practical application
When reading firefighter online forums you typically see posts like, "NFPA equals Not For Practical Application."

Nothing could be further from the truth. For the uneducated, NFPA standards are produced by technical committees composed of fire service subject-matter experts, manufacturers, researchers, affected organizations, etc. Thus, the standards are written by the same people who have to comply with them.

For those operations where SCBA will not be used, such as auto extrication, NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, requires firefighters to have eye and face protection during operations where eye and face hazards are present.

NFPA 1500 specifically requires that primary eye protection meet the requirements of ANSI Z87.1, Practice for Occupational and Educational Eye and Face Protection.

ANSI Z87.1 specifies requirements for different types of industrial eye and face protective devices including safety glasses, goggles and faceshields, but does not include heat and flame requirements. The ANSI standard also states that the helmet faceshields should not be considered primary eye protection, but wearing an SCBA does constitute primary eye and face protection.

One burning question
So several of the revisions to NFPA 1971 made by the technical committee between the 2007 and 2013 editions dealt with removing inconsistencies between NFPA 1971 and NFPA 1500 when it came to eye and face protection. Those changes say that any faceshield or faceshield and goggle combination attached to the helmet must conform to the field of vision requirements.

So, if you wear goggles with the Bourke eye shields on your helmet down, are you compliant with NFPA 1971 and NFPA 1500?

Put on your helmet, goggles, and put the Bourkes down. Then looking straight ahead and have someone hold a ruler in line with the center of your eyes. Now measure downward 40 degrees from the end of the ruler — the end that's away from your face.

That's how far your faceshield must extend to provide the performance required by NFPA 1971. Bourke eye shields do not meet that performance standard alone; they must be used in conjunction with NFPA-compliant goggles.

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