June 25, 2018

One of the most, if not the most, important pieces of personal protection equipment for a firefighter is a fire helmet, as well as its companion, the fire hood. Originally made of leather, fire helmets have evolved over time and are now constructed out of materials like composites and thermoplastics.

However, the style of the helmet has remained much the same (wide brim, tall crown) and is a highly recognizable symbol of fire protection services. What’s also remained the same is the fire helmet’s purpose which is in simplest form, threefold – to protect you from falling debris and to provide both flame and heat resistance.

But what has changed are the attributes of a good fire helmet. Namely, today’s fire helmets are lighter and stronger due to the technologically advanced construction techniques and materials used to make them.

In this article, we’ll break down the requirements of a fire helmet as well as its features and how to choose the right fire helmet. We’ll also talk about the two types of fire hoods and help show you how to choose the right one for you.

NFPA Standards and Requirements

The National Fire Protection Association sets the standards for the requirements that govern fire helmets and their ability to protect you. NFPA 1971 is the Standard on Protective Ensemble for Structural and Proximity Fire Fighting and establishes the design and performance criteria for protective headwear, which in part says that fire headwear must be designed to:

  • Provide protection from high heat
  • Provide protection from flame exposure
  • Protect from the impact of falling objects
  • Protect from contact with electrical wires

Fire Helmet Features

Let’s take a moment to dive into four of the six required features that make up a modern day fire helmet:

  • Shell
  • Energy absorption system
  • Retention system
  • Retro-reflective / fluorescent trim
  • Ear covers
  • Faceshield / goggles

The shell is made of either thermoplastics or thermoset resin composites. We’ll come back to the helmet’s composition materials later. For now, let’s move on to energy absorption.

Energy absorption deals with how the helmet reacts to an impact on it – i.e. an object falling on it or bumping your head into something. Manufacturers tackle this issue in different ways. Some simply use the helmets suspension system – the headband and webbing materials in the helmet, while others add foam inside the helmet in conjunction with the suspension system.

The fire helmet is secured on the firefighter’s head by its retention system, which consists of a chinstrap, webbing, and sometimes a nape device which goes to the back of the head.

Firefighters are now required to have either goggles, a faceshield, or a combination of the two. However, the latest NFPA 1971 standard says that the goggles do not need to be affixed to the helmet.

Optional features for the fire helmet also include a shield or heraldry which signifies either the firefighter’s rank or the fire department to which she/he belongs. There are also accessories for attaching lights, thermal imaging cameras, and other devices to the helmet.

How to Select the Best Fire Helmet

When choosing a fire helmet, there are a number of factors to consider. We’re going to focus on four key factors here that will help you make the best possible choice – composition, weight, balance, and style.

Composition

Today’s fire helmets are made out of two main types of materials – composite materials and thermoplastics. Both have specific strengths and weaknesses.

Composite helmets are made up of a mixture of glass fibers and thermoset resins. The strength of the helmet is made up mostly of the glass fibers, while the thermoset resins are what hold those fibers together. The trick for manufacturers when designing composite helmets is to find the right mixture and ratio of the glass fibers and the resins. Finding that proper mixture results in a helmet that’s both light and strong.

These “fiberglass” helmets are known for their ability to protect against chemical exposure, as well as their excellent protection in high-heat environments. However, be aware that with repeated exposure to high heat, those thermoset resins do begin to deteriorate and degrade over time, so the possibility of needing to replace the helmet sooner rather than later is relevant.

One of the traditional issues faced in helmet composition was that helmets could generally be designed to withstand either high heat or great impact, but not both. However, with the advancements in thermoplastics, helmets are now able to provide both heat and impact resistance to a high degree, including withstanding temperatures in excess of 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

The downside of thermoplastic composition is that they generally don’t hold up as well to certain chemical solvents, meaning that if your job duties often include dealing with chemicals, this may not be the helmet type for you.

Weight

Another factor to consider is the weight of the helmet. As mentioned, most modern day helmets are designed with weight in mind, and you’ll find most are indeed lightweight, especially compared to previous generations. Look for a helmet that is not only lightweight, but highly durable as well.

Balance

A good fire helmet should fit securely on your head and offer optimal balance. Firefighters often complain of helmets feeling “top heavy.” They also find that sometimes they can ride too low or too high on the head.

Finding a helmet with the proper balance and weight distribution has the benefit of making it feel lighter on your head without any other alterations. For most helmets, simply adjust the posts on the suspension to find the balance that feels perfect for you.

Style

This factor is all about the preference and personality of the department. Do they prefer a traditional-style helmet or a contemporary-style helmet?

Traditional embraces the history and tradition of the firefighting service and quite often features patriotic decoration that reflects the heroism of the profession. Many traditional-style helmets come in a matte finish which gives the appearance of that old school, leather look, but with the modern features of strength and durability.

A contemporary-style helmet features a sleek, modern look and is often less bulky. Its glossy finish makes it easier to clean as well.

Fire Hoods – What to look for

An often overlooked and underappreciated, yet valuable, item of PPE is the fire hood. A fire hood covers exposed areas around the head and neck not already covered by the helmet, coat collar or faceshield.

Fire hoods are made out of two types of material – carbon and Nomex. Both offer pros and cons. Carbon hoods are generally thought to be more comfortable by most firefighters, mainly due to their light weight. Many also find that carbon hoods don’t shrink as much after washing.

However, those who wear carbon hoods often find they can feel more heat when wearing it, while Nomex hoods offer better insulation and protection from extreme heat conditions. Also, Nomex hoods are thought to dry quicker than carbon hoods.

Still you’ll find other firefighters who prefer not to wear a hood at all, as they find it uncomfortable, obtrusive, and unnecessary, save for extreme cold conditions when they may reluctantly put on one.

The opinions and preferences when it comes to which type of fire hood to wear are as varied as they come, so the choice is quite personal to each firefighter who must decide which option provides the most comfort and protection.

At CHIEF Supply, we proudly offer a wide range of both fire helmets and fire hoods for every preference. Keep in mind the comfort, durability, and protection you’re seeking and you’re sure to find the perfect option.

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