American firefighters' helmets through history

Core77's David I. Seliger has a nice retrospective on the design of American firefighter helmets from the 1731 helmets designed by Jacobus Turk for the Fire Department of New York to the contemporary thermoplastic models. These modern helmets, Seliger says, have plenty of room for improvement, and "Redesigning the fire helmet - both a marketable product and a symbol deeply ingrained in American culture - to satisfy firefighters' physical, mental, and emotional needs could be the industrial design challenge of a lifetime."

Three main types of helmets are currently used in the United States. The "leatherhead" is just that--constructed almost entirely of leather. The leather's resistance to heat actually rivals that of modern composites. The large brim that dips down in back is designed to keep hose water dripping off of the ceiling out of the face. The leatherheads are used in fighting regular fires.

The second type is the structural helmet, a more streamlined version of the leatherhead, constructed of thermoplastics or composites. These helmets are used for structural collapses and extrications. Goggles, instead of a face shield, often sit on the front of the helmet.

The last type is the European-style helmet, which looks like a cross between a motorcycle helmet and something from Star Wars. The design is purportedly much more comfortable and practical. But, as one firefighter put it, "I've been involved with fire departments in four states...and in seven years have seen a grand total of two [European-style] helmets... these guys were... universally afraid of being mocked for wearing something new, different or 'unfashionable.'"

Tradition vs Progress: The Art of the American Fire Helmet


  1. Is it just me? I found the concept of this museum much more appealing than the reality. I wanted to like this museum. I tried, I really tried. I stuck with it. I’d like to think I have an open mind. I go to a lot of museums, of all types, all over the world, all the time. But I swear, I’ve never been so bored as I was at this one. Sorry, FDNY.

  2. “designed by Jacobus Turk” – I wonder if this is where the “Turk” comes from in the movie “Turk 182”, which is about firemen?

    1. Anon No 5 Wrote:

      —————————–< SNIP >————————————
      i’m a fan of the creepy old ones like this:

      (pic i took at chicago’s museum of science and industry)

      —————————–< SNIP >————————————

      Wow — when I was a kid, my _dentist_ wore a mask Just Like This! Dr. Mold was my dentist until I started going to a non-pediatric dentist when I was 14, so until then, I thought that this is what all dentists wear. I was pleasantly surprised when my new dentist didn’t greet me wearing such a scary mask. The Darth Vader like breathing alone was scary enough.

  3. @snakedart : Thank you for mentioning the French Firfighter Helmet !
    I live next door to a small village fire brigade in France, and even them are equipped with modern helmets (they are standard regulation). French firefighters statistically suffer much less face and neck burns compared to american firefighters (who still have that insane habit of using their ears as “thermometers” on the field).

    Some years ago, a New York fire brigade was invited in Draguignan, a village of the french riviera, by the local brigade. They were all gifted with french helmets adorned with 9/11 commemorative plates, because their french colleagues thougth it was only justice they faced danger with the best equipment possible.

  4. I have worked in the fire service for years and have never heard of a FF throwing his helmet out a window to signal distress. First, it’s a terrible way of signaling for help when pretty much every FF carries a radio and second without a helmet (even with protective hood and SCBA facepiece) your head would get burned very very quickly.

  5. My father was a firefighter. I proudly have his lieutenant’s helmet hanging on my studio wall.

  6. I was a vol. firefighter for a few years, and my father and brother still are. Firefighters are pretty conservative people (in that they resist change for its own sake). I think they’d balk at being asked to wear the stormtrooper helmet. It would have to be a lot better.

    I don’t know where the “throw the helmet out the window” thing comes from, but I’ve heard it before. I’ve been inside burning buildings and the absolute last thing I’d do in that situation is take my protective gear off. You should have a PASS alarm that triggers a something-like 100dB alarm if you stop moving, but you can set it off manually, too.

  7. Yeah, here in Europe “European” helmets are known as French helmets, they originated there, and during the last decade or so they have completely replaced any other type of helmet even when coming down to the smallest town fire brigade. All my firefighter friends have them as standard and some are in brigades with 5-10 members.

  8. SFFD supplies firefighters with classic ‘leatherhead’ style helmets, but made out of composites.

    Using old leather helmets is acceptable within the ranks, many people do: I like my plastic helmet. It has been knocked around and warmed up a few times: still hangin’ tough.

    As an Engine guy, I prefer black, so the day-glo stickers had to go. . .and my eagle got bent the other day, but all it took was some heavy vice-grips to straighten it out.

    Compared with modern European and Japanese safety headgear, there is no doubt much of the US is stuck in the past. . .but until I can wear something like #5’s (that works better than a 45 min Scott :)

    I’m willing to let function follow form in the name of historical reminiscence. And IMO using ears as thermometers provides a useful lesson for keeping low at fire scenes -yeow!-

    1. Can’t they just keep the old style helmets as part of a dress uniform?

      And for sexy calendars, when raising money?

  9. Leather helmets are a sustainable product, unlike petrochemical helmets.

    Conservation is not a dirty word. Let’s conserve the animal husbandry and leather goods industries instead of encouraging further elimination of farming, and more deepwater drilling and inevitable pollution and destruction of animal habitat by petrochemical industries.

    Let’s congratulate the firefighters for their continuing sponsorship of a vital and sustainable industry, rather than condemning them for some imagined irrational fashion statement, OK? If the leatherheads work, they should not be displaced by a plastic helmet. The firefighters are displaying intelligence.

    And before someone points out that plastics can be made from non-petroleum bases – Yeah, OK, but they can, but they aren’t.

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