Tradition, history of the American firefighting helmet
To those of us on the job, the helmet is a tradition that allows us to express our respect for those who have gone before
By Mick Mayers
After the first few times a warrior took a stick to the head, someone determined a protective covering was warranted.
It seemed logical that something should be developed to shield our heads from harm. After all, our most vulnerable organ, the brain, was right there and ripe for disaster. When firefighting became more readily organized in the American Colonial period, the first firefighting “stovepipe” helmet also appeared. It wasn't until 1836, however, when a New York City firefighter, Henry Gratacap, developed what is familiar to most as the firefighting helmet.
Function over form
According to an article by my friend and colleague, Chief Pete Lamb, Gratacap's helmet considered function first. The helmet was made of leather, which was tough and resisted breakage and burning. The high dome deflected falling objects; the “front piece” advertised unit, rank, and usually some other identifier or decoration and the “front holder” could be used to break windows. The long brim to the rear channeled water and burning embers off the helmet and to the rear where they could fall harmlessly down and not into the collar of the coat. The traditional American firefighting helmet has changed little since those days and that shape has come to be a recognizable symbol of "the job."
Even the components of the helmet have their own stories. While the front piece is probably the most noticeable part of the helmet, the front holder of the traditional helmet has an interesting history. The front holder is the brass or metal crest figure that holds the front piece on the helmet. The most common figure used, the eagle, has long been associated with pride, courage, and valor. An article in The New Yorker in 1930 explained that the eagle‘s presence there actually came in or around 1825, when an unidentified sculptor was commissioned to create a burial monument for a firefighter's grave. His eagle inspired what is normally seen, but over the years, in addition to just a bit of fancy scrollwork, other objects have been represented. Bulldogs, greyhounds, panthers, lions, snakes, fish, seahorses, and even, yes, the beaver, which seems to be popular in Canada.
What are firefighter helmets made of today?
After World War II, fire helmets began to take on a more consistent shape, especially as they were mass produced. In 1979, a National Fire Protection Association committee issued the first standard on firefighter helmets that included specifications on impact resistance, penetration, resistance to electrical current, and the continued integrity of the helmet under heat and flame impingement. While over the years, leather became less used, experiments with metals found them to be conductive, so plastics became used more and more.
What does the helmet mean to firefighters?
If there is any one piece of equipment a firefighter values, it is their helmet. Firefighters don't take kindly to people just taking their helmet off the rack and putting it on; when a firefighter lets a civilian try on their helmet, it is really an act of kindness. An old tradition from before the prevalence of radio communications is that a firefighter's helmet lying on the ground unattended is a signal of distress. As a last resort, not being able to get someone‘s attention, the helmet was thrown out to get the attention of a brother jake.
The helmet is also customized somewhat for our personality. Some departments permit a sticker or two to be added to the lid for personal identification. The front piece may be a customized design that shows off the pride the firefighter has for their company. And if you still use a leather helmet, the brim can be flexed to provide a characteristic tilt, much like cowboys do when they form their hats.
Many of us use the inside of the helmet for our own special place as well. Inside my own white leather fire chief's helmet is a St. Florian medal blessed by Pope John Paul II, given to me by the dearly departed Chaplain of our State Firefighters' Association years ago, as well as a picture of my daughters and a rosary. A friend of mine had his children write loving notes to him on the inside of his brim.
To the average citizen, the fire helmet can be a status symbol or just something really interesting to wear. To those of us working on the job, the helmet is a tradition that allows us to express our respect for those who have gone before, but is also a means to keep us from harm.
This article, originally published June 2015, has been updated.