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Which firefighting helmet is the right one for you? It depends

Leather or composite? Traditional or techy? New York or Houston? Debate abounds – and so do the choices

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Cairns offers many choices of helmets for structural firefighting.


By Robert Avsec for FireRescue1 BrandFocus

Perhaps no subject prompts more passionate debate amongst firefighters than that of “What’s the best helmet for structural firefighting?” Or to put it another way, “What’s the helmet that REAL firefighters wear?”

The “correct” answer to either of those two questions really depends upon where in the U.S. you do your firefighting, doesn’t it? There’s East Coast (e.g., FDNY, Philly Fire, Boston Fire) and West Coast (LA Fire, LA County Fire, San Francisco Fire, and CALFire). And all that real estate in between.

Chances are, your fire department has modeled itself after one or more of those big fire departments (Mine, Chesterfield (Va.) Fire and EMS, was known for a long time as “Little LA” because of our chief’s fondness for “all things LA Fire”). And if so, the helmet of choice for you and your fellow firefighters is probably what the “big guys/gals” wear on the job.

A fun little history lesson

Another good debate topic is: Who developed the first leather firefighter helmet? It is generally agreed upon that sometime between 1821 and 1836 it was Henry T. Gratacap. Gratacap’s “made his bones” as a luggage maker who developed a specially treated leather – it was durable and withstood wetness without rotting – for ocean travel.

Gratacap was also a volunteer fireman in New York City who saw that his luggage leather could make a particularly good fire helmet. So, he created a leather helmet – the first to use a design composed of eight segments or “combs” – that quickly gained popularity with New York City firemen as well as a name, “New Yorker.” Gratacap’s helmet would be adopted by FDNY in the late 1800’s.

Two brothers named Cairns were operating a metal badge, button, and insignia business in New York City at the same time Gratacap was developing the “New Yorker.” Today’s helmet front pieces? That was the Cairns brothers, who first mounted an identification badge to the front of Gratacap’s helmets.

Their cooperative relationship would continue until Gratacap’s retirement sometime in the 1850s, when the Cairns & Brother legacy was born. Cairns & Brother (now Cairns Helmets) has pioneered firefighter helmet technology ever since.

Leather helmet today

The “New Yorker” of the 1800’s has come a long way under Cairns Helmets and it is still a popular fire helmet cherished by firefighters young and old. But tradition has not stopped innovation at Cairns Helmets in making improvements to the leather helmet.

In 1993, Cairns introduced the Cairns N6A Houston leather fire helmet, the first leather helmet that was compliant with the helmet specifications of NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting.

Today, each Houston leather helmet is still hand-crafted, shaped, stitched, and trimmed to last for years and remains compliant with NFPA 1971 (2018 Edition). While it has the traditional look on the outside, the Houston is all about modern on the inside, starting with replaceable soft goods for easy removal and cleaning. That’s important because as part of its cancer prevention guidance for firefighters, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network recommends removeable soft goods in all firefighting helmets.

The Houston also has the features that today’s firefighters look for in their fire helmet for safety and comfort like:

  • Non-corroding high-temperature glass-filled face shield/goggle hardware.
  • Engineered impact cap that provides advanced thermal/impact/penetration protection in a lower profile (Cairns fire helmets have some of the lowest ride-heights in the market).
  • Soft black Nomex chinstrap with one-hand quick-release buckle and postman slide for quick removal and adjustment.
  • Removable/washable sateen liner w/Jumbo Nomex Black earlap.

The Houston is available in medium (6 3/8" to 7 1/2") and large (7 5/8" to 8 1/2") sizes and comes in various colors.

Style, safety and comfort

Cairns Helmets introduced the first unpainted composite shell helmet to the fire service in 2004 with the Cairns 1044 traditional-style structural firefighting helmet. Sixteen years later, the Cairns 1044 is still a popular choice for firefighters looking for a lighter, durable helmet that doesn’t sacrifice safety for comfort.

Like its older brother, the glossy Cairns 1010, the new Cairns 1044 offers the proven protection and durability of the Cairns DuraGlass fiberglass/high-temp resin composite shell. The through-color composite resists chipping and cracking and because its matte finish isn’t painted, those everyday nicks and scratches that do happen are harder to see.

The Cairns 1044 is much more than a durable helmet with good looks. When compared to other traditional-style helmets, the Cairns 1044 has a lower profile and better balance. One measure of that lower profile is the crown clearance (the distance from the inside helmet shell to the suspension straps).

While most competitive helmets in the class with the Cairns 1044 have a crown clearance of 2 ¾ inches or more, the Cairns 1044 comes in at less than 2 ½ inches. That difference in balance and wear-ability becomes readily apparent, especially when worn for long periods while doing your job.

That lower profile, together with a three-position, rear-ratchet height adjustment and a six-way overhead strap suspension system that reduces shock transmission at the top of the helmet, gives the Cairns 1044 a snug and comfortable fit.

An exclusive SCBA interface front headband adjustment matches the fit of any SCBA mask.

Essential eye protection

The Cairns 1044 features MSA’s innovative Defender Visor with a scratch- and thermal-resistant, slightly tinted Tuffshield lens that retracts into the helmet’s shell where it stays clean and ready to deploy. There’s no other NFPA 1971-compliant helmet eyewear that’s as compact or as convenient.

All Cairns traditional and deluxe configuration helmets come with the Tuffshield lens as the standard equipment visor. The Tuffshield lens visor is heat-resistant up to 500° F. (Other visor materials will start to melt at about 345° F) and it’s a heavier grade material with more impact resistance. The slight yellowish tint helps you see better, day or night, because the lens filters out harsh wavelengths and glare. The result is better contrast that reveals more detail under all lighting conditions (think the tinted glasses worn by professional shooters).

The unique Cairns design allows the Defender visor to be raised and lowered quickly, even with gloved hands, and the Defender visor stays securely stowed until you choose to pull it down. Combine its optically correct lens (eliminates peripheral distortion) with its sleek, close-fitting profile and you have eye protection that works for you, not against you.

Maintenance is a breeze. Just disconnect the Defender visor from helmet (no tools needed), clean the lens, and replace it. You can change the lens quickly, even when on the emergency scene.

The 4-inch amber Tuffshield visor is compliant with NFPA 1971 (2018 edition). All visors meet ANSI Z87.1+ impact requirements.

The Cairns 1044 has several other eye protection options to choose from, including a sleek, low-profile, NFPA 1971-compliant (2018 Edition) goggle from ESS Eyepro that’s designed to fit comfortably over most prescription glasses. These goggles – designed to fit well with the Cairns 1044 – feature a high-temperature-resistant frame that makes lens replacement quick and easy. The snap-on/snap-off mounting system uses simple low-profile posts on the sides of the Cairns 1044 and patented speed clips make it easy to adjust the straps, even with gloves on.

Traditional-style Bourke Eye Shields with clear lenses that exceed US-OSHA (CFR 1910) NBSIR-1977 are also available.

Make it a combo

Firefighters like having protective eyewear options because the different situations and operations present different hazards. You can be ready for those situations by customizing your Cairns 1044 with one of several eye protection combinations:

Option #1: Combine the Defender Visor with Bourke Eye Shields. NFPA 1971-compliant (2018 Edition).

Option #2: Combine the Defender Visor with ESS Goggles. NFPA 1971-compliant (2018 Edition).

Option #3: Combine the ESS Goggles with Bourke Eye Shields. NFPA 1971-compliant (2018 Edition).

The choice is yours

The right helmet for the job is the helmet that gives you fit, form and function, that will withstand rugged conditions on the fireground, that you can wear comfortably through long, hot days and nights and, most importantly, that you can trust to protect you. With a Cairns helmet, there are no wrong choices.

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.